A Tennessee high school student who went public with her fears about racial tensions among her classmates has found herself the center of controversy, and she says the school tried to punish her for speaking her mind.
Administrators at William Blount High School suspended Bridget O'Neill on April 19, a day after the junior told ABC News affiliate WATE-TV in Knoxville that racial tensions had not gone away at the school. The building was locked down April 6 after a series of incidents, including the discovery of a hit list and racial graffiti on the walls.
O'Neill, a white girl who said she is friends with black students, told WATE on April 18 that she felt threatened by another student in class. She spoke to WATE off-campus after the station's camera crew was barred from school grounds.
"There's still a lot of racial tension going on," O'Neill said. "One kid actually made a sign saying that 'The South will rise again.' And that all the n*****s need to die and stuff."
She said the boy made the sign in class and hid it in his pocket before teachers saw it.
"I think it's going to continue because I've been here for three years and every year it's getting worse and worse," O'Neill said.
School officials relented at a disciplinary hearing on Thursday -- nine days after she was suspended -- and decided to allow her to return to class. O'Neill said she's behind in her school work but she'll be allowed to make it up.
She's hoping, however, that her parents will move her to another school, she said.
Principal Christy Martin refused to talk to a reporter from WATE about her decision to suspend O'Neill, both before and after the hearing.
The station's calls to the superintendent's office for comment were not returned.
O'Neill and her parents said school administrators told them that faculty and staff members had to deal with several concerned parents after her interview aired. They were told the time spent talking with those parents disrupted classes, and that was why the girl was suspended.
"They said they had two or three students and two or three parents come in there," O'Neill said. "But kids have been going in and out since the hit list came out and discussing it and how scared everyone was. So I didn't do any thing more. I just told the truth on the news.
"It's freedom of speech and I'm sorry I disrupted class but it was after class and I still stand for what I said," she said.
O'Neill's parents said they believe her suspension could have been avoided if school administrators had contacted them in the first place.
Her parents said the girl was called into the principal's office the morning after her interview aired, and the principal demanded to know why she talked to the media and who made the sign.
"She was screaming at her she was stupid," said the girl's mother, Diane O'Neill. "They threatened to expel her for the rest of the year because she wouldn't give the name. Then she threatened to call the police. And she was like, 'Why?' She said, 'Well, I'm going to have you arrested for standing in the way of justice.'"
The school sent home a letter that said O'Neill was suspended for disrupting the classroom and providing false information about the sign.
O'Neill said she is concerned for her safety, and she believes the school has bigger problems than her.
"I think there are more issues with the people and it's not just the rednecks," she said. "It's African-Americans doing it, Latinos, Mexicans, Yankees were all doing it. They should focus more on the fights that have been happening in the past year and stop focusing on the little things."
A 15-year-old student at the school was arrested on April 8, two days after the lockdown, after he confessed that he threatened to bring a gun to the high school.
When students returned to the school on April 18, following spring break, school administrators would not allow WATE-TV cameras on the property, but a spokeswoman said things were back to normal.
Students, however, told the station they felt anxious when they arrived at school, but the sight of more Blount County sheriff's officers helped them feel more at ease.