When Dontadrian Bruce raised his thumb, forefinger, and middle finger in a photo with classmates, he didn’t expect to get suspended.
The 15-year-old high school student from Olive Branch, Miss., was called to the assistant principal’s office the weekend after his biology teacher snapped the photo. Bruce was told he was suspended for holding up a gang sign in the picture, NBC News reports.
Bruce says he was holding up three fingers to represent the number on his football jersey.
“I was trying to tell my side, and it was like they didn’t even care,” Bruce said.
Three days after his suspension, Bruce’s case was presented to a disciplinary hearing officer who affirmed the school’s initial punishment: “Indefinite suspension with a recommendation of expulsion.”
Olive Branch High School contends Bruce was holding up a sign belonging to the Vice Lords gang, a Chicago-based group that has a known presence in the nearby area. According to the National Gang Intelligence Center, members are predominately African-American males whose main source of income is street-level distribution of cocaine, heroin, and marijuana.
Hand signs affiliated with the Vice Lords include one that resembles the gesture Bruce made in the photo: the forefinger and middle finger in the shape of the letter “V” with the thumb sticking horizontally to form an “L.”
The school’s punishment stems from a zero-tolerance policy inspired by the Gun Free Schools Act of 1994, which made schools expel students with firearms. The law was passed to prevent the number of guns found in schools. Instead the number of suspensions and expulsions has increased to 40 percent in the past 40 years – 95 percent of suspensions are for nonviolent behavior.
Reports have found the policy targets minorities including black, Latino and children with disabilities, where 7 out of 10 in the 2010-11 school year were suspended over white students.
Marcus Guy, Bruce’s stepfather, says his stepson would have been given a milder punishment had he been a white.
“I was born and raised here, graduated from Olive Branch, and I’m telling you: they would have done nothing,” he said.
Bruce agrees. “They figured I was a gang member because of my color,” he said.
Bruce says he has been a polite, soft-spoken student without a troublemaking history. His football coach, Scott Samsel, confirmed this saying he would “be shocked if [Bruce] was associated with any type of gang.” Adding, “We have our hands on ‘em year-round. A kid would have to be pretty crafty to be able to hide [gang affiliation] from us.”
On Facebook, Bruce’s mother shared a photo of her son posing with the same hand gesture used in the photo taken at his school. Supporters have commented on the hand sign saying it does not look like it has gang affiliation. One user says it is the same sign used in American Sign Language for the number three. Another said it resembled benediction hand.
A Facebook group petitioning for Bruce’s return to school has more than 2,000 likes. According to a post on February 24, Bruce’s suspension was lifted and he was allowed back at school.
“They tried to make them sign probation papers parents refused school called the back at 10 and let them in with out signing any probation papers!!!!” Carol Lemay writes on the Facebook page.
According to PolicyMic, since Bruce’s reinstatement, his mother is working with an ACLU attorney to make sure the incident does not interfere with her son’s permanent record.