Not all clothes-minded messages work at school

By Bryan Richardson

Students routinely test the boundaries on what is appropriate wear for school. Sometimes those questions even make it to court. Earlier this month, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals settled one such question, ruling that a Pennsylvania school district can’t ban “I (Heart) Boobies” breast cancer awareness bracelets after two middle school girls were suspended for wearing them at school.

The court’s decision said the district could not prohibit the bracelets because they “are not plainly lewd and because they comment on a social issue.”

While USD 383 secondary principals said attire is not high on their radar, they have a guide for handling such questions.

The issue can be divisive. In 2012, a Wisconsin federal judge upheld a ban on the bracelets, saying the prohibition didn’t infringe on a student’s free expression rights. That case, too, involved a middle school girl.

Even within the area, Junction City High for a time had a ban in place. After suspending a male student for two days for wearing the bracelet, the school lifted the ban in December 2010 following an American Civil Liberties Union complaint.

Manhattan district dress code policy states that, “Students, parents and school staff are responsible for appearance that promotes safe, modest, non-disruptive student behavior.” USD 383 Supt. Bob Shannon said it’s up to the principals and their interpretation of the handbook to figure out what students can and can’t wear. Clothing that’s prohibited includes items that advocate or encourage violence; promote the use of or make references to alcohol, drugs, tobacco products, or which use sexual innuendoes; contain abusive, rude, profane, obscene or indecent language, pictures or symbols; and demean or ridicule others.

Manhattan High principal Greg Hoyt said his decision would be based on what the shirt looks like. “If it’s a shirt that says ‘I (Heart) Boobies’ and it’s not easily recognizable as I’m supporting breast cancer, then I think that’s one issue,” he said.

Without a clear message, Hoyt said a student couldn’t wear it. “We always have latitude to ask if we feel something is inappropriate to ask the student to change,” he said.

Eisenhower Middle principal Tracy Newell said he would likely make a student turn the shirt inside out or change. He said advertising has become saturated with innuendo and that isn’t the way he wants students to deliver messages.

“There’s a lot better ways of advertising for that,” he said. “With middle school students, it will cause a disruption.”

Anthony Middle School principal Vickie Kline said the question concerns the student picking a better way to deliver the message. “I would talk with the parent to see if there’s a way to support it through a different manner,” she said.

Kline said she’s experienced a couple of instances of students wearing the “I (Heart) Boobies” bracelet. She said one student was supporting her mother, who had breast cancer, and they were able to work out another means to show support. But another student wore it as a means to simply talk about breasts.

“That’s why I start out with talking with the kids first,” she said. “I’m supportive of breast cancer awareness, not sexual harassment.”

Principals said sometimes the message itself can be both positive and disruptive. “I’d rather err on the side of caution in that gray area,” Newell said.

Hoyt said it would have to be a “black-and-white” issue for him to absolutely prohibit something. He and other principals agree that suspension isn’t the best route to follow.

“Suspending is such a large consequence that is really antithetical to what our purpose is,” Hoyt said. “We want students to be in school. We want them learning.”

Hoyt said dress code issues typically don’t involve clothing with messages. “When it comes down to it, we want to make sure body parts are not exposed,” Hoyt said. “That students generally look respectful, and that we’re not promoting drugs and alcohol or sex.”

Kline said there’s not too much activity on her level related to messages except for the occasional shirt that promotes violence. “It shouldn’t be a disruption,” she said. “Nothing should interrupt a school day.”

Newell said it’s about the reaction that the clothing might provoke. “While there is an expectation of freedom in your attire at schools, there’s also a level at which it becomes disruptive or infringing upon other students,” he said

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