Thursday, October 11, 2007

Which Was Violated More--The Dress Code or the First Amendment?

I promise that I'll stop writing posts bashing school administrators about dress code soon as they start making sensible decisions in that area. Until then, we have things like this:
A Waxahachie High School sophomore is at the center of a First Amendment debate after school officials told him he could not wear a T-shirt that supports Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards.

The parents of 15-year-old Paul T. "Pete" Palmer are asking school officials to reconsider the school district's dress code policy and threatening to sue if no changes are made.

Pete's dad, attorney Paul D. Palmer, said this week that the school district is entitled to a dress code as long as it doesn't violate students' constitutional rights to free political and religious expression.

"This is not about a hippie-dippy idea – 'everyone can wear whatever they want,' " Mr. Palmer said. " 'This is who I support for president.' He has a right to stick that on his shirt."
I've heard of plenty of varieties of prohibited T-shirts--those that contain obscenities or sexual references, glorify drugs or alcohol, or even promote heavy-metal bands--but political candidates?? Yeah, this seems to be going too far.

The school's response, of course, is pure adminispeak:
The school district declined to provide specifics on the case but provided a written statement, which included the following: "The district also values student speech rights. ... Our schools, however, are not unbounded forums for practicing student speech, and our primary focus remains creating and maintaining an environment conducive to learning."
I'm still not seeing how a shirt that generically supports a political candidate is disruptive to learning.

So what is allowed in Waxahachie? Here we go:
The school dress code policy allows T-shirts that promote Waxahachie clubs, organizations and sports or other spirit wear. College and university T-shirts or solid-colored T-shirts are acceptable.

"All polo style [knit] shirts and shirts with colors containing pictures or slogans that are provocative, offensive, sexual or suggestive in nature, vulgar, lewd or obscene are prohibited. Alcohol and tobacco pictures or slogans are also prohibited," according to the school district's dress code policy.
I'm not seeing anything that expressly prohibits promoting political candidates here (I should mention that the shirt in question simply said "John Edwards '08" and listed a Web address). One would think that the school would err on the side of the First Amendment.

But the principal was having none of this:
The school held a grievance hearing on the matter Oct. 3. In a letter to Pete's parents, Waxahachie High School Principal David Nix denied the family's assertion that Pete's First Amendment rights were being violated.

The letter said students "have a number of opportunities to express themselves through the wearing of buttons, jewelry or other symbols, forming a school-sponsored club, and speaking at limited public forum opportunities available during the day."

The principal also wrote that he was available to assist Pete with forming an approved club or organization such as "Waxahachie High School Students for Edwards."

"This would allow Pete the opportunity to express support for the political candidate of his choice through a school-sponsored organization," the letter said.
Ahh, yes--form a club. The bureaucratic answer to everything seems to be to form a committee of some sort, doesn't it?

So is the school going overboard here? I vote yes. (It should be noted that in a recent Supreme Court case, a Vermont school district lost its appeal of a ruling that they had censored a student who was wearing an anti-Bush T-shirt. The Edwards shirt worn by Pete was much "milder" by comparison.) Once again, an administrator has made a decision that seems to be based more on the expansion of his own power rather than anything that really has to do with the good of the educational process. I think you know my solution for this problem...)

And here's one more: Meanwhile, a middle school in Illinois has outlawed hugs.

Jeers to the bus driver, part 1: A 10-year-old Arkansas boy stole a school bus and led police on a 44-mile chase down rural roads.

Jeers to the bus driver, part 2; A Minnesota bus driver was fired after a student recorded him swearing at the kids on the bus.

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