Minnesota-- When is a rosary something other than a religious artifact? Coon Rapids Police say it is when it is a gang symbol.
Jacob Balthazor, 15, a sophomore at Coon Rapids High School, decided to wear a hematite rosary that he purchased in Mexico, around his neck.
"I got in trouble at the school because I was wearing my rosary and they said it was part of a gang," said Balthazor.
"[Wednesday], a staff member saw a student wearing a rosary," commented Mary Olson, Communications Director of Anoka-Hennepin School District 11. "The staff member recalled that she had received an email from Coon Rapids police saying that rosaries are now gang symbols in this area and because we have a policy that says students cannot wear gang symbols or display them in any way, she asked him to remove it."
Coon Rapids High School Liaison officer Bradley Johnson sent an email on May 7, 2012, that read, in part, "A new issue came up recently that is interesting regarding rosary beads. Some gangs do use them as clothing symbols. The gangs identified around here that have been using them are the Latin Kings and the Surenos. I'm not Catholic, but I have been educated by friends that are and the rosary is not appropriate to use as jewelry or dress."
Balthazor, who said he is Lutheran, not Catholic, says he was trying to show support for his grandmother, who is also not Catholic. She was undergoing breast cancer surgery on Thursday morning.
Balthazor told KARE 11 that he felt there might have been a religious objection to his wearing of the rosary, but the school district said it was a dress code problem because of the gang issue.
"He did not say that he was wearing it in support of his grandmother," said Olson. "He was probably not aware that it was a gang symbol." Olson said it is not a disciplinary issue and there will be no penalty for Balthazor. Thursday was the last day of school at Coon Rapids High School.
"It is always in a student's best interests not to wear things that could be perceived as a gang symbol by a gang, could be a safety issue for the student," said Olson. One fear is that the student could be targeted by members of a rival gang.
"It concerns me that like I go out there and [gangs] see it, they could do something about it," said Balthazor. He said his grandmother is "proud of me" for wearing the rosary and "disappointed in the school, that they are accusing me of all this stuff when I am just trying to support her."
Balthazor's mother, Lisa Thompson, was upset that the district did not forward the email from the police to parents. "I think it is absolutely ridiculous that the gangs can dictate what our children wear to school."
Lisa Thompson insisted that her son is a good person, an athlete in baseball and football. "To me, it is a piece of jewelry that Jacob wears and he could not be there for his grandmother's surgery and he is supporting her. He said to me 'if I wear this, I feel like He is watching over Grandma and I feel closer.'"
When school officials asked Balthazor to remove the rosary on Wednesday, he complied and put it in his pocket. He told KARE 11 that he wore the rosary to school on Thursday and was not told to remove it.
Lisa Thompson said the surgery went well and Jacob's grandmother is expected to be fine.