Unlike the many teen girls who go back to school eager to show off their newly pierced ears or their bejeweled navels, Ariana Iacono made little fuss about her nose ring.
But when the blink-and-you-missed it stud caught the eye of school officials on her first day North Carolina's Clayton High School, a fuss was officially in the works.
Ariana, 14-year-old freshman, wears her nose ring as a religious symbol. She and her mother are members of the young, but incorporated Church of Body Modification, which views piercings, tattoos, among other rituals, as a way to spiritually strengthen the connection between body, mind and soul.
But the school dress code forbids such piercings. Despite a written exemption for religious, spiritual and cultural exemptions, an appeal to the school was rejected and Ariana is now at home, suspended and struggling to complete homework from classes she hasn't attended.
Ariana's mother, Nikki Iacono, said she was told by the school principal that he had researched the family's religion and didn't believe Ariana's nasal stud to be necessary.
"I don't think it's fair that he can determine what's necessary for our religion, for me and my beliefs," said Ariana, a bright and well-spoken teenager.
"Nobody has to agree with us," Nikki Iacono, 32, said. "We have the same rights as anybody else does."
Iacono admits that she doesn't expect others to understand or even have heard of the Church of Body Modification. She didn't even know it existed until she moved with Ariana and her younger daughter to North Carolina 2 1/2 years ago and met with one of the church's ministers.
Though Iacono said she always felt her piercings and tattoos meant more to her than simple aesthetics, "I didn't realize there was a church body of people that were involved in this type of thing."
The minister they met was Richard Ivey III, a 22-year-old from Raleigh who worked part-time in the piercing and tattoo shop Iacono had visited.
"Our main objective isn't to get in the news, not to have kids getting kicked out of school," Ivey said. "It's not something that we put out there to shock people with. We just try and keep to ourselves more or less."
He said he, too, was frustrated by the controversy that Ariana's nose stud has caused. And he's angry at what he views as religious intolerance, calling the county "backward."
"He's basically saying that because he doesn't understand it, it can't be a sincerely held religious belief," Ivey said. "How do you judge someone's sincerity when it comes to religion?"
Johston County Schools spokeswoman Terri Sessmons said that the Iaconos failed to meet every single point of a multi-count criteria for a religious exemption. Those criteria include a copy or citation of recognized religious text, a written statement by a religious authority and specific examples of sincerity of the student's religious beliefs.
She declined to comment specifically in Ariana's discipline, citing student privacy.
Formed in 2008 as a new incarnation of a defunct similar organization the Church of Body Modification boasts about 3,500 members across the United States and is registered as a non-profit organization in Pennsylvania, where the church president lives.