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.
Finding Religion Through Body Modification
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.
"We strongly believe in the relationship between mind, body and soul. Sometimes what you do to the body can strengthen the mind and soul or bring the mind and soul into harmony with the body," he said. "Which I don't think is a crazy concept."
And while the church is a religion, it doesn't involve a deity and it doesn't preclude members from practicing other religions. Some members identify also as Christians, Buddhists or Wiccans.
Members practice a variety of body modification, including tongue-splitting, ear-lobe or skin extending and a variety of methods to make art or designs on the body, including sub-dermal implants, branding and scarring.
Though the church does not have any brick and mortar houses of worship, many gather in houses or at sporadic events and keep in regular contact otherwise. There are just 20 members of the Church of Body Modification in North Carolina.
Gary Laderman, professor and chair of the Department of Religion at Emory University, had not heard of the Church of Body Modification, but said it and religions like it are "the future of religious life in America."
"I think there's much more to religious life and culture than God," he said. "To me this is a great illustration of an alternative form of religious practice and commitment than what we're used to."
But finding the line between religion and something a little more diluted, he said, is "tricky." Also complicating what constitutes religion are social mores that vary by region.
"The south is pretty tight and conservative generally," he said. "Those kind of community standards are going to come into play and those are often difficult to contest."
But Laderman, author of ""Sacred Matters: Celebrity Worship, Sexual Ecstasies, the Living Dead and Other Signs of Religious Life in the United States," noted that the Church of Body Modification had government approval as a recognized entity. And not having a physical house of worship doesn't mean it shouldn't be observed.
"When you sort of open the doors as wide as it can go you are really struck by the variety of religious values and commitments people will respect," he said.
Teen's Vows to Fight for Religion, Despite Disastrous Start to High School Career
For Ivey, who grew up as a Jehovah's Witness and called his mother's worshipping "cult-like"was kicked out by his mother, then the church, just before his 18th birthday. He has used body modification as a way to heal.
"I carried a lot of issues with me because of my past," he said. In addition to his multiple tattoos -- more than 300 hours worth in total-- piercings and extenders, Ivey has practiced what is known as suspension.
Most commonly done from the back, suspension involving hang from a series of carefully placed hooks in the skin. Ivey has been suspended from his back and his knees. He said he found peace in suspension and his frequent panic attacks and bouts of anxiety subsided.
Ariana, her mother said, has found similar solace through her nasal piercing.
"She had been abused as a kid, as a young kid, for several years. She struggled with self esteem and self worth," Iacono said. "This was for her a symbolic representation of reclaiming her beauty and her self esteem."
"It had a lot of meaning behind it, which is why I stood behind her," she said.
The stud is a tiny piece of jewelry, a small peridot stone -- Ariana's birthstone. Her only other piercings are in her ears, which is permitted by the school. Her 12-year-old sister also has pierced ears.
Iacono said Ariana was offered to be allowed to wear what's known as a retainer in the hole, but Iacono, and LPN studying to become a registered nurse, said she worries about the threat of infection from the cheap and porous plastic of the retainer.
Both Iacono and Ariana said the hole in her nose would close and also be at risk of infection so soon after it was pierced if she were to simply leave it out.
"I do like school," Ariana said. "I've been so bored these past few days."
Iacono said her daughter is a good student and a diligent one and had been looking forward to high school. She's already looking at which colleges she might want to attend.
And though she's started to struggle to keep up with her school work since she's missed many of her lessons, Ariana is prepared to return to school next week only to be suspended again.
Right now she's been disciplined with one, three and five-day suspensions. Iacono said she was told that Ariana faced a 10-day suspension and a possible recommendation for an alternative high school if she again return with her nose piercing.
"I strongly feel there's no turning back to us," Iacono said, adding that she has reached out to the American Civil Liberties Union for help.
They'll have Ivey, their minister, cheering them on.
"All this little girl Ariana wants to do is wear her nasal piercing to remind her that she's a beautiful person," he said.
"For her, this nostril piercing isn't just something she wants to do," he said. "It's more than that."