In what activists are claiming is a clear use of excessive police force and a violation of civil liberty, an eighth grader at a Texas middle school was arrested and slammed face-first in the ground by a police officer during a school football game after the student refused to remove his spiritually beloved rosary beads from his neck.
Jacob Herrera, an eighth grade student at Sam Houston Middle School in in Amarillo, Texas, was arrested and detained overnight by local police in late October after he argued with an officer over his right to wear rosary beads on school grounds. The rosary was given to him by his now-deceased brother and has religious and sentimental value to him.
While the Amarillo Police Department holds that rosary beads are symbolism for association with gang violence and asks that students in the Amarillo Independent School District not wear them on school property, Herrera had acquired prior approval from the school's principal that allowed him to wear rosary beads underneath his clothing while in school.
Before Herrera attended one of the school's football games on Oct. 29, he was granted further approval from administrators allowing him to wear and display his beads while at the football game, without having to keep them underneath his clothing, his mother claims.
At the game, Herrera was confronted by a police officer working security who told him to remove the beads. Herrera didn't want to remove the beads and tried to explain to the officer that he had been given permission to wear them.
When Herrera refused to remove the beads, police statements indicate that Herrera was told to put his hands behind his back, which he refused. He additionally did not comply with any of the officer's other demands, which ultimately led to his arrest and painful physical police treatment.
"My son passed away two years ago, 2012, and he was teaching Jacob, you know about God and how you know, he should wear the rosary to protect him. So Jacob believes that that rosary protects him and its of his remembrance to his brother," Herrera's mother, Lori Martinez, told a local CBS affiliate.
According to a witness, Herrera was detained and was treated cruelly by the officers. Later, he had to be taken to the hospital due to injuries inflicted by the officer.
"You know, he handcuffed him, and then crossed him across the street right there and slammed him again and he repeatedly slammed the child on the floor," witness Marviell Chavez said.
Coming to the legal defense of Herrera, The Rutherford Institute, a legal group dedicated to the defense of civil liberties, sent a demand letter to the Amarillo Independent School District on Dec. 4 demanding that the district rescind its dress code policy that states that students may not wear anything deemed as "gang apparel" by local law enforcement.
The letter also asked the school district to encourage law enforcement to drop its criminal prosecution of Herrera, and also said that the school district should issue a statement condemning the police department's use of excessive force on young students.
"I think it was excessive force. The school should not be allowing this to happen. He is just an eighth grader," Rutherford Institute founder John Whitehead said in a Monday interview with The Christian Post. "I understand that this [could be seen as] a gang symbol, but you can't repress the symbol. It is a matter of religious freedom and is a First Amendment right. I think that they are overreacting to the gang issues, and if you have somebody wearing it legitimately, yes, they should be allowed to wear it. I think it is an important issue or we wouldn't be involved."
The Rutherford Institute has given the school district until Friday, Dec. 12, to respond to their demads. If the school district does not respond or give in to the demands by then, Whitehead said the institute has found a local lawyer who will take up Herrera's case and could pursue a lawsuit against the school and police department.
Although Whitehead said that the letter was sent last Thursday, the Amarillo Independent School District's communications director, Holly Shelton, told CP that they did not recevied the letter until Monday morning and will conduct a review of the the district's policy.
"We will be reviewing our policies with the concerns addressed in the letter in mind," Shelton said.
Herrara's case is just one case representing a larger issue of school boards and local governments wrongly implementing rules that infringe upon the religious expression rights of their students and even teachers, Whitehead further addedd.
"I have heard of schools that say teachers can't wear a cross. They can't wear a reef on their lapel. Well, no court cases have ever held that. It is just an overreaction for political correctness," Whitehead asserted. "I can see concern over gang symbols, but when you are lumping rosary beads in there with it, and Christian symbols, you got a problem.
"Then, when you have the cops slamming somebody face-down, and he had to go to the hospital over it, an eighth grader, holding him in detention like he is a master criminal, just doesn't make any sense to me," Whitehead added.