01/18/04 — Southern Wayne students protest dress code - one suspended

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Southern Wayne students protest dress code - one suspended

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on January 18, 2004 11:02 PM

Several Southern Wayne High School students say they plan to appear before the school board to debate the validity of a dress code that forbids wearing clothing related to their southern heritage.

Josh Keating, 16, a junior at the school said he received three days' suspension on Friday after he refused a request to remove a shirt considered in violation of the policy.

The policy states "clothing will not be allowed that promotes alcoholic beverages, tobacco, the use of controlled substances, depicts violence, is of a sexual nature, or is of a disruptive nature."

Keating was one of several students who chose to wear T-shirts that contained Confederate symbols and references. The other students received warnings but complied when asked to turn the shirts inside out.

The shirts, purchased from a catalog company, depict various pictures of Confederate history. One contained a battle flag while others featured leaders from that era Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee.

Terry Miller, also a junior at the school, said he regularly wears the line of clothing and has been doing so throughout high school without problems. Over the past week, though, he said he has been sent to the office a few times and asked to refrain.

"I was told that it contained a racist symbol," he said.

Miller said he was given a warning not to wear the shirts by Randy Martin, assistant principal at the school.

"I told him it was my heritage," he said.

When he met with Principal Gene Byrd, it was suggested that he stop wearing the clothing to allow the situation to die down, he said.

"I felt offended," Miller said.

He said he wrote a letter to Dr. Steven Taylor, superintendent of schools, which he mailed mid-week but had not received a response. Taylor was out of town and could not be reached for comment.

A petition was also circulated at the school. Junior Joseph Johnson, one of the students who wore a Confederate T-short, said the petition was signed by 40 students and given to Byrd. Johnson said blacks and Hispanics also voluntarily signed it, although he could not say whether it was signed in support of the Confederate message or the right to freedom of speech.

Miller said he and several friends decided to wear the shirts on Friday. The move resulted in their being called into the principal's office individually. Each was told about the policy and asked to turn their shirts inside out. Four complied; Keating did not.

Keating received a suspension as a result and his mother was called to pick him up from school. He said she asked for a copy of the policy and drove Keating and the other students to the central schools office to question the dress code.

A number of administrative personnel at the central schools office were out of town at a conference when the students arrived. The group met with Allison Pridgen, director of student support services.

Ms. Pridgen was unavailable for comment, but Miller said the group was told that the policy stands and that the group could appear before the school board and express their concerns.

Byrd chose not to comment about the situation but said it was a matter of enforcing the dress code. He referred questions to school system administration.

Dr. Craig McFadden, assistant superintendent for accountability and student services, said Byrd acted within the guidelines of the board policy.

"He has the authority under the board policy to judge whether articles of clothing might disrupt their academic program," McFadden said.

"I think it says 'in the opinion of the principal' and that's his opinion."

McFadden said that the same group of students came to school wearing the shirts before the Christmas holidays and had been advised not to wear the clothing.

"Four of them changed; one did not," he said. "These same kids came back on Friday and did the same thing."

He said Byrd gave them the opportunity to change and again, four did and one did not.

"It boils down to a judgment call," he said. "I think Mr. Byrd used reasonable judgment."

Explaining that Southern Wayne is a school that has a 50/50 racial distribution, McFadden said the clothing choice could cause an inflammatory situation and Byrd's response was appropriate.

"We're interested in providing an academic educational program," McFadden said. "We're not interested in making political statements."

Miller said the group plans to keep fighting. Johnson said he will circulate another petition and the students will speak at a school board meeting.

"Until we meet with the school board, we accept the consequences but I'll still fly my flag with honor," Miller said.

"We're celebrating Martin Luther King Day on Monday but it's also Robert E. Lee's birthday and nobody knows it."