Public schools

Mississippi High School Suspended Student Indefinitely Over Alleged Gang Sign in Science Project Photo

Returned to school 21 days later after several local news reports, 21 other suspensions of students


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A 15-year-old high school student at Olive Branch High School in Mississippi was suspended indefinitely and threatened with expulsion after the administration accused him of throwing a gang sign (pictured right, in a re-enactment) in a photo of students posing with their biology project that their science teacher took, according to NBC News, which reported:

[Dontadrian] Bruce was summoned out of first-period English by assistant principal Todd Nichols, who showed him the photo. "You're suspended because you're holding up gang signs in this picture," said Nichols, according to Bruce.

Bruce explained that he was simply representing the number on his football jersey, "3," and that all the kids did it in football practice. He also said he had no idea the gesture was known to signal affiliation with the Vice Lords, a Chicago-based gang with a strong presence in Memphis, Tenn., 20 miles north of Olive Branch.

A quick Google search finds some examples of the purported Vice Lords hands signs. One website includes three versions, including the one the student was accused of making, and another that's basically the Vulcan salute. It should put into perspective the dubious ground on which these kinds of allegations are founded. NBC News uses the incident to delve into the broader issue of zero tolerance and the racial disparities thereof, tracing the explosion of zero tolerance policies to the Gun Free Schools Act of 1994, which required expulsion for bring a firearm to school. That opened the flood gates to rapid escalation of zero tolerance policies.

NBC News notes Olive Branch doesn't refer to its anti-gang policies as "zero tolerance," but does warn students violating anti-gang policies could face penalties up to expulsion. Bruce reportedly returned to school after 21 days. The school was apparently spurred by local news reports and social media activity. Twenty-one other students posed making the same gesture as Bruce did in protest of his punishment, including his older brother, and they were all suspended too.

Bruce, his family, and his friends all say he doesn't belong to a gang, and there's no reason to believe he does. The student athlete says the three is for his football jersey number. Nevertheless, suspension would be inappropriate even if a student in a gang made an innocuous hand gesture in a photo snapped by a teacher.  Zero tolerance policies allow administrators to avoid making their own judgments on discipline. Coupled with "anti-gang" policies, they conflate non-violent activity (like hand gestures, colored clothing, or even hanging out with a group of more than two) with "gangs," especially while targeting minority students, and feed the perception that schools need to be mini-police states.