updated 2/29/2008 12:52:23 AM ET 2008-02-29T05:52:23

Two teenagers suspended for "gang-related behavior" because they were wearing crucifixes say they were only wearing gifts from their mothers.

Jaime Salazar, 14, and his friend Marco Castro, 16, were suspended from South Albany High School after they refused to put away the crucifixes.

Salazar said that Principal Chris Equinoa saw his necklace and told him to put it away. "I was like, why?" Salazar said. "He says it's related to gangs."

Salazar said he argued and was sent to the office, but went home instead. He later received a note saying he had been suspended for five days for "defiance and gang-related behavior."

Castro, a junior, was suspended for three days after refusing to take off a string of rosary beads, with a crucifix and a tiny picture of the Virgin Mary.

Equinoa said he could not comment on an individual student's case. But he said that as principal, he can ask a student to remove or cover items that could indicate gang ties — even a religious symbol. Any such directive would not be made without other information, he said.

Albany police say fellow officers in Salem and Hillsboro have been contending with crucifixes and rosaries as gang markers for the past several years.

Principals have the discretion to do what Equinoa did, said Jim Haggart, executive assistant to the superintendent.

"We're not trying to squash any religious symbols and we're not trying to get into religion, but we are trying to get into student safety, and that's what we're really concerned about," Haggart said.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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