School Officials Believe Rosary Beads Are Gang Symbol

Jerod Gunsberg, Los Angeles Criminal Defense Lawyer

A guest blogger, criminal defense attorney Andrew Bouvier-Brown, comes to us this week with his take on a bizarre incident in which a Colorado high school student had his rosary beads confiscated by school authorities. Why? They believed that the rosary, which contained 13 beads was a “gang symbol.” As reported in the Daily Mail:

According to the Loveland Reporter Herald schools across the country have been banning the wearing of the beads because they are known to be used by gangs including the Surenos and the Latin Kings to mark membership. The district’s fears were furthered by the fact that [the student’s] string had on it 13 beads – a number associated with the Surenos – rather than the traditional 10.

But is the 13 bead rosary that unusual? No.

It is, in fact, quite common for a rosary to have “thirteen” beads, depending on how you describe the arrangement of those beads. A typical rosary is divided into “decades,” strings of ten beads, with a single bead dividing each of the decades. There are five decades on a complete rosary. The five decades of beads (plus four dividing beads) form the main portion of the rosary, linked together by a medallion of some sort (typically, but again, styles vary widely.) Hanging down from the medallion will be five more beads: a single bead, a group of three beads, a single bead, and then a cross or crucifix icon.

However, it is not uncommon for a sort of “mini-rosary” to be sold with a string of ten beads. Such items are in wide use and are certainly a part of traditional Catholic prayer rituals. On such items, there are sometimes only one additional bead between the medallion and the crucifix icon, leaving a total of eleven beads. It is also fairly common, however, to see three beads between the medallion and the crucifix– making a total of thirteen beads on the rosary. An example of one such thirteen bead rosary: the last item for sale here ( One can see that the last example is a very cheaply made, inexpensive rosary, all plastic; that is a good indicator of the level of wide distribution this style might be expected to receive. They are meant for giving away… perhaps to a group of school kids, for instance.

But this story brings to light a more perplexing and disturbing problem. These school educators can hardly be blamed for their ill-conceived position on this issue, as they are in many ways simply following a well-established trend in law enforcement towards its next logical step. In courtrooms across Los Angeles, across California and all over the western United States today, one will find law enforcement officers styled as “gang experts” who will tell you, under oath and in the face of cross-examination, that what transmutes an ordinary, innocuous symbol into a gang symbol is the person who is wearing it. They’ll also testify that what transmutes a person into a gang member is the fact that he or she is wearing a gang symbol. The circularity ensues:

Q: “How do you know this person is a gang member?”

A: “For one thing, he’s got a gang symbol. A Raider’s helmet.”

Q: “Are all Raiders helmet tattoos gang symbols?”

A: “Only when they’re being worn by suspected gang members.”

Now, of course, merely having a tattoo, possessing a certain symbol, carrying an article, or the like cannot by itself make you a gang member. The other pieces of this equation? Association with “known” gang members, and oftentimes, a shared ethnicity with that gang. In short, a young Latino or Latina who grew up in a neighborhood where there are gangs (thus associating him or her with gang members by default; every kid from that neighborhood went to the same school) with a Raiders helmet tattoo has a gang tattoo.

It’s almost to be expected, then, that this insidious, vaguely circular reasoning would extend to other symbols ubiquitous in Latino culture. The rosary is certainly that, which leads one to wonder: What about images of the Virgin of Guadalupe, to whom the rosary prayer is so often dedicated?

La Virgen is certainly an even more common image, whether on an elaborate mural, a beautify tapestry, a cheaply made candle, or a tattoo. Can we consider this deeply cherished, culturally distinctive, powerful spiritual beacon a gang symbol as well? You’ll find Her associated with young Latinos and Latinas everywhere, including that relatively small percentage of the demographic who belong to a criminal street gang.

When this young Latino boy brings a rosary to campus, he’s bringing a gang symbol to school. When and elderly white woman does the same, most assuredly, no one will ever make the same assumption. If this sounds sinister to you, please know: this kind of thinking merely follows the lead set by the so-called gang experts now dictating public policy and determining the outcome of criminal justice proceedings throughout America.

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