Austin Medeiros said he has always felt an urge to be patriotic. The Camarillo High School student has chanted "USA, USA" after the singing of the national anthem at sporting events and student rallies and worn a U.S. flag bandanna, he said.
With the Rio Mesa High School boys basketball team set to visit Camarillo High on Wednesday night, Medeiros joined three friends in wearing the bandannas to the game. But he and Stefan Valenzuela said their display of patriotism led to their ejection from the game, along with two friends.
The students said they were suspended, which sparked a rally at the school Thursday morning. Camarillo High officials gave a different account, but both sides agreed they learned something about the line between patriotism and racism.
"We've done it always," Medeiros said of wearing the bandannas. "It's something we do. It's the same group of friends. We always talk about it. We're all very patriotic."
The four students wearing the bandannas came to the Scorpion Dome for the JV and varsity rivalry games. Valenzuela said that between the games, an associate principal came over to the stands and warned students not to curse or make racial comments. The school official saw the bandannas and told the four students to remove them or leave, Valenzuela said.
The four went outside, then ran back inside the gym at halftime with their bandannas on and began chanting "USA, USA." The four were ushered out and given five-day suspensions, which were later rescinded, Valenzuela said.
Principal Glenn Lipman, however, said Thursday that the students were not suspended but were asked to leave campus and meet in his office Thursday morning.
Asking the students to remove the bandannas was a precaution, Lipman said. The two high schools have diverse student bodies, Lipman said, and the chant could be interpreted in different ways.
Camarillo High's student population is 47 percent white and 41 percent Hispanic, while Rio Mesa's is 67 percent Hispanic and 22.5 percent white, according to the California Education Department.
News of the incident quickly spread after the game to social media including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
"To be honest, this is what I wanted to happen," Medeiros said of the attention. "I was texting people from the minute I got suspended to start blowing it up on social networking, email whoever they could, call whoever they could."
More than 100 students gathered Thursday morning in front of the flagpole at Camarillo High wearing patriotic clothing. Lipman directed the students into the gym for a question-and-answer assembly about the incident.
Wearing patriotic clothing is acceptable, Lipman said, but the chanting gave him pause.
"We wanted to make sure (the chant) wasn't racially motivated, and I told the kids I just want to be sensitive to the feelings of everybody," Lipman said. "If we're doing it for patriotism, that's fine. But if we're doing it for something else that's racially motivated, I'm not going to allow that."
Rio Mesa Athletic Director Brian Fitzgerald attended Wednesday's game and said he noticed some Camarillo High students pointing toward the Rio Mesa fan section while chanting "USA, USA."
Fitzgerald acknowledged that in a heated rivalry, students from both sides can push the limit of what's acceptable.
"Are we going crazy about it over here? No, we're not," Fitzgerald said. "As far as crowd control went, I thought the Camarillo administrators did a very good job of trying to keep a lid on something that could have been explosive.
"We had a few kids that we removed from the game who said some inappropriate things. It's always a battle to keep the one-upmanship from happening."
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