Jake Balthazor's grandmother had breast cancer surgery Thursday. Balthazor, 15, wore a rosary as a talisman for her health, as he has every day since she gave it to him in March.
On Tuesday, that was a problem. Officials at Coon Rapid High School, where Balthazor is a student, asked him to remove the beads or tuck them into his shirt. The reason: Rosaries recently were added to a list of items prohibited in Anoka-Hennepin schools because they have been coopted as gang symbols.
Balthazor complied because he was told that if he didn't the beads would be taken away.
He said he hasn't been wearing the beads for religious reasons -- they're a Roman Catholic symbol, he's Lutheran -- but as a totem that held him close to his grandmother. "I feel safe, like she's right here with me," he said.
Balthazor, who said he doesn't belong to a gang, had worn the beads in school uneventfully until Tuesday. He said he hadn't known they were banned. School officials said they hadn't known about his grandmother until learning about her in news reports.
Balthazor and his family say they feel singled out, that others have worn rosary beads without incident. District spokeswoman Mary Olson said that knowing about Balthazor's grandmother might have changed how officials thought about things but probably wouldn't have changed the outcome.
Sometimes, when students wear a gang symbol, she said, "someone from the opposing gang may attack them or may do something that would start a fight or something that would be a disruption in the school. So it's really a matter of safety."
Coon Rapids Police Chief Brad Wise said the school was "in a tough spot. If something bad had happened to that boy and the school had knowledge that he was wearing something they knew could be viewed as a gang symbol, that would be a problem for the district. They were in a no-win situation in this, and they had to make a judgment call. There will be those who disagree with it."
Has it happened?
Chuck Samuelson is one. The executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota said he wondered whether any kid in Minnesota had been attacked by Latino gangs for wearing a rosary. Or, he wondered, was the rule a reaction to something that happened once, somewhere else?
Wise said he doesn't know of a problem with Latino gangs at Coon Rapids High School, but that a problem might not be obvious. Olson also said she was unaware of such a problem in the district.
Longtime Twin Cities youth worker Sarah Klouda has worked for a decade with police and youths who identify with gangs. She said that she only recently heard of rosaries being used by gangs, but that she's never heard of anyone being harmed because of one.
Among Roman Catholics, rosaries are a symbol sacred to the Virgin Mary. The prayer beads are carried and prayed upon but never worn.
At Sagrado Corazon de Jesus, a Spanish-speaking Catholic congregation in Minneapolis, the Rev. Vicente Miranda said he was unaware of the rosaries as a gang symbol. He also said the things of God should not be used for evil.
People who are not Catholic, he added, would not have any reason to wear a rosary around their necks.
Balthazor and his mom, Lisa Thompson, maintain his right to wear the symbol.
"Jake is a kid with a big heart," Thompson said. "When he believes in something, he will stand up for it, and I will back him 100 percent."
On Thursday, his grandmother was in recovery after successful surgery, Thompson said.
Balthazor wore the rosary to school again Thursday, the last day of school, with no problems. At least one friend wore one, too. He may continue to wear it next year.
"They're getting too carried away with all the gangs and their dress code and everything; it makes me want to move now," he said. "A lot of my friends keep on telling me to stay strong with it and just do what you think is right."