Draped across Juan Balcazar’s book bag Sept. 29 was the yellow, blue and red flag of Colombia, the homeland he left 3 1/2 years ago.
It was Hispanic Heritage Month, and the 17-year-old junior at Freedom High School, wanted to show his pride.
The assistant principal had different ideas.
“Take it off,” Balcazar remembers Frank Oliver telling him.
The next morning, when Balcazar strolled into the cafeteria, again wearing the Colombian flag, Oliver couldn’t believe his eyes.
“Take it off and give it to me,” he said.
Balcazar didn’t oblige. As a result, he spent Friday, Monday and Tuesday at home, suspended from school.
By Tuesday, his suspension was the talk of the Tampa Palms campus. Hispanic students, outraged, wore Colombian and Puerto Rican flags on T-shirts and around their waists and wrists.
After another heated exchange, five more students were suspended.
Balcazar’s suspension was up Tuesday, but students were still talking about it.
Some spoke about their heritage, and their desire to express their pride in it.
A white girl in the first period French class had a question: “If your countries are so wonderful, then why aren’t you living there?”
Suddenly, no one was talking about Balcazar anymore, but about the girl in first period French. At lunch, several Hispanic students surrounded her and started yelling.
“There was a big riot in the cafeteria,” said freshman Steffanie Lozano, 14, one of the five students suspended. “Kids started screaming ‘white power.’ “
Sophomore Marissa Dewdney, 15, who was sitting at the table with the girl whose question caused such a stir, heard something else:
“We’re from Puerto Rico,” she said. “It doesn’t mean anything that we live in the United States. We’re still Puerto Rican and we’re going to represent it.”
While accounts of what was said vary, this much is true: Five teens, Lozano included, were given three- and five-day suspensions for disrupting a school function.
Lozano said she and the other four students were suspended because they had small paper flags taped to their shirts in protest of what happened to Balcazar.
“If Juan hadn’t got suspended none of this would have happened,” Lozano said.
Students should be free to display their ancestral pride, Lozano said.
So agrees her mother, Marie Lozano, an insurance adjuster. The students were not hurting anyone and the flags are not considered symbols of racist hatred, she said.
“I’m just very sad,” Mrs. Lozano said. “It’s so ironic for something like this to happen at Freedom High School.
“My daughter is an American and nobody can take that from her. But I have to pass on to her her roots. I’m just very sad they were racially profiled because they had flags on their shirts.”
The flag flap has pitted some students against school administrators and drawn attention to the 2-year-old New Tampa school.
“It seems to me like the punishment outweighs the crime,” said Gabriela Lemus, director of policy and legislation for Washington, D.C.-based League of United Latin American Citizens. “I think it’s a little bit extreme to suspend students for showing their pride.
“I have to tell you I’m somewhat offended.”
But principal Richard Bartels said he stands by the three-day suspension of Balcazar. He was suspended for “willful disobedience,” not because he displayed a flag, Bartels said.
However, Bartels does have a general rule against flags because of the potential for a disruption, said school attorney Tom Gonzalez.
In some cases, such as class assignments, flags are allowed, Bartels said. Even in those cases, students must treat the flags with respect, and draping a flag over a book bag is not the right way to show a flag, he said.
“There are appropriate ways to display flags,” Bartels said. “We wouldn’t want the American flag treated in that shabby manner.”
Hillsborough County has no systemwide policy on flags.
“Certain flags would be a nonissue while other flags offer the potential of problems,” Bartels said, citing the Confederate flag and Nazi flag as examples of those that could cause trouble.
“If you have a group of Iraqi students waving Iraqi flags, there could be a disturbance,” he said.
The school system gives principals leeway in prohibiting clothing and other items that may interfere with the learning environment.
“It’s our position the principal has the right to make that call as to things that cause disruptions,” Gonzalez said.
District spokesman Mark Hart said administrators are still investigating the incident in the cafeteria and trying to figure out if other students incited the Hispanic teens. “Whoever interacted with them wasn’t held accountable,” he said. “We need to go back and see how it started.”
Bartels said he’s unsure of the root cause of the problems, but he is unaware of any simmering racial tensions at the school. About half the 1,500 students are white, a quarter are black and 18 percent are Hispanic.
Flag disputes are familiar in Tampa area schools.
Earlier this year, Tarpon Springs High School suspended student Krista Abram after she distributed a petition to ban the Confederate flag from campus. The principal said the students broke a rule by not clearing petitions with administrators.
At Freedom, Bartels said he will meet with parents of some of the students today to possibly reduce or rescind some of the suspensions since three of the teens had no prior discipline problems.
As for Balcazar, Wednesday was his first day back on campus. He said he didn’t understand what he did wrong or what lessons he should take from the experience. He did not, however, bring back the Colombian flag.