Editor’s note: The name of the student in this article, for the purposes of protection, has been changed at the request of his mother, whose name has also been changed.
Chris Smith insists that he’s not involved in gangs. But the school he attends, Providence St. Mel, thought otherwise when they recently expelled the honors student for alledgely making gang signs on his Facebook webpage.
He said he was just fooling around with friends in the photos, where he was making a bird-like gesture to the song “Fly Man” by rapper Jim Jones. The song has referances to “ballin’ and “flying like an eagle.”
The school was tipped off about the photos from a letter sent by another student. Facebook, similar to networking website MySpace, allows members to post pictures, send messages and interact with others on its site.
Chris and his mother, Pat, met with St. Mel Principal Jennette DiBella and President Paul Adams at the request of the school to discuss the pictures.
“My son is an honors student, is involved in college preparatory work and is preparing for college. He is in no way taking part in any gang-related activities,” his mother said.
Chris, 17, she said, is a decorated scholar, has a 3.0 GPA and scored a 29 on his ACT. He’s also studied abroad in Argentina and has worked for a law firm in downtown Chicago. None of these activities are indicators of a reputed gang member, she insists.
“He has always been an exceptional student and for them to react in the way they did, knowing his scholastic record, is not right,” she said.
St. Mel, located at 119 S. Central Park, is among many schools across the country that restricts what students can put on their personal webpages on such sites. Other schools have punished students for what’s on their sites.
“The picture was of me in my bedroom,” Chris said. “I was making bird-like gestures with my hands, and the principal felt that I was throwing up gang symbols. Actually, I had no idea that was a sign used by a street gang. I was only joking around with friends.”
School officials, however, didn’t find it funny, and expelled him from school. They have also prohibited him from attending next year’s prom and graduation.
“Their minds were already made up when we walked into the office,” he said. “It was just a matter of assessing the punishment, which I felt did not fit the crime.”
Chris said the principal told him that his gesture was a reference to the Latin Eagles street gang. Chris said he’s never heard of the gang.
“I speak Spanish, but I don’t know anything about the Latin Eagles or any other gang,” he said.
Nevertheless, Principal DiBella told Austin Weekly News that an expulsion for such an infraction is part of the policy of the school, regardless of a student’s GPA or academic record.
“It is outlined in the handbook given to all the students as incoming freshmen about behavior that we deem not representing our school in the proper fashion,” she said. “Expulsion would be the consequence handed down for any student seen smoking weed, having sex, or flashing gang signals. We will not tolerate it and every student knows this from the beginning.”
But Chris’ mother questions the school’s judgement – not its policies – concerning the treatment of her son.
“Mr. Adams even admitted he thought that my son probably is not affiliated with a gang, but he felt he needed to show that the school had a zero tolerance for this type of activity, even if it’s implied. He was basically making an example out of my son,” she alleges.
She said they took the page down, fearing that if the school thought it was a gang sign, maybe an actual gang might start bothering her son.
Chris also fears that with an expulsion on his record, it could affect his collegiate career.
“Right now, I am still set to receive scholarships, but I don’t know what will happen when the schools see the expulsion on my record.”