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    Red, white and banned

    Patriotism is clashing with workplace policies as people confront regulations that muffle their emotions.

    [Times photo: Kevin White]
    Antonio Russo, 4, and his mother, Michelle Russo, were told by Antonio's school that the youngster could not have a red, white and blue ribbon on his backpack at school.


    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published September 21, 2001

    Twice this week, Michelle Russo sent her 4-year-old son to school with a tiny red, white and blue ribbon attached to his backpack. Twice, he came home without it.

    The boy's kindergarten teacher confiscated the ribbons because they violate Spring Hill Christian Academy's policy against flags or other emblems on clothing or backpacks.

    School officials, who have made exceptions since the attacks, say it is time to return to normal at the private Hernando County school. Russo, whose uncle is a New York police officer working near the World Trade Center rubble, thinks the ban is ludicrous.

    "Everyone throughout the United States is showing their support, with flags and donated blood," Russo said. "I just couldn't understand why my son could not wear a ribbon."

    The sudden rush of patriotism after last week's terrorist attack is beginning to run headlong into policies, rules and sensibilities. From classrooms to office buildings, the collision is creating uncomfortable dilemmas for Americans trying to pull together after a national tragedy.

    In Tampa, a police officer was disciplined for wearing a black band over his badge to honor fallen officers. In Fort Myers, a librarian for Florida Gulf Coast University publicly apologized for making employees remove "Proud to be an American" stickers. And in Boca Raton, a second-grade teacher was suspended for allowing students to sketch pictures of the World Trade Center tragedy.

    In Spring Hill, the ribbon issue left Antonio Russo sitting out of school Thursday. His mother says the school expelled him when she threatened to take her story to the news media. When she arrived to pick him up, Russo said, Antonio was crying in the office.

    The principal, Bill Crawford, said the boy wasn't expelled. He says he told the mother she needed to withdraw the boy from school if she wasn't willing to follow school rules. The decision to take the boy out was the mother's, he said.

    Russo says she spoke with her uncle Anthony -- Antonio's godfather and the person the boy was named after -- during a break from his work near the disaster site. "When I told him this story he was outraged by it," she said.

    Crawford, himself, was not untouched by the terrorist attacks.

    A former police officer and firefighter, he was standing with other Christian educators outside the White House gate last week, waiting to talk to a presidential aide, when a plane hit the Pentagon.

    "I'm just as affected by this as anyone else," Crawford said. "But life has to go on."

    Tampa police Officer Ernie Hedges also was deeply saddened by the attack.

    At roll call the morning after, he arrived with a black band across his badge to show respect for the fallen officers.

    Immediately after the 6 a.m. roll call, however, Hedges was told by a supervisor to remove the band. It had not been approved by Chief Bennie Holder.

    "I couldn't believe it," Hedges, a 15-year veteran, recalled. "I said, 'Do you realize how many officers lost their lives?' I was told it was a matter of protocol."

    Protocol or not, Hedges said he told the acting sergeant, he was not taking off his black band. By 10 a.m., Hedges was called in off the street to explain his insubordination to Lt. Mary Walker, who directed him to write a letter explaining his actions.

    "I was showing my respect for all who died," Hedges wrote in a letter dated Sept. 12.

    By that time, Chief Holder had issued a memo of his own, saying, "In honor of those Americans who were killed in this tragic event, effective immediately, the Department will remain in a state of mourning for seven (7) days. Officers in uniform will wear black bands over their badges during this period."

    Holder's memo was too late for Hedges.

    On Thursday, department officials issued Hedges his discipline: a letter of counseling to be placed in his personnel jacket. "I was not about to accept an order like that -- to take off the black band that was honoring those who had been killed," Hedges said.

    In Fort Myers, the head librarian of Florida Gulf Coast University publicly apologized Wednesday for making employees remove "Proud to be an American" stickers so international students wouldn't be offended. The action Monday by Kathy Hoeth triggered a public outcry. On Wednesday, she issued a statement of apology after the school president, William C. Merwin, rescinded her directive.

    "One employee made a terrible mistake," Merwin said.

    In Boca Raton, second-grade teacher Patricia Bowes was suspended indefinitely after a parent complained that she made a big mistakes. The day after the attack, the youngsters at Addison Mizner Elementary School were distracted in class and talking about what happened, she said.

    "They drew their versions of what had happened -- airplanes crashing into the towers, a brick falling on a child's head, buildings crashing down," she said. Bowes doesn't know what picture prompted the complaint. The school confiscated the drawings, she said.

    "I thought," said Bowes, "that I was following what the school directed -- to give the children information if they asked."

    -- The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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