This was Sharon Grey’s fifth year as principal of Riverboat High School, and she had to agree that this group of seniors had been a real challenge. The final straw occurred in February. During a snow break, several seniors loaded up in two or three cars and drove the 8 hours to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Unfortunately, the local snowstorms quickly dissipated, and district schools reopened before the students returned. The fact that the school was in session had little impact on the dozen or so seniors in New Orleans, and they decided to stay for a few more days. Apparently, the parents of this group sent them more money and condoned their “senior trip” in spite of the fact that one of the young men managed to get arrested by the New Orleans police and charged with underage drinking. The group returned as heroes to the rest of their senior class and as villains to the staff. Sharon was bound by policy to mark their absences as unexcused, much to the dissatisfaction of several of the students’ parents. In spite of her best efforts, this issue developed into an emotional confrontation between several parents and the Board of Education, with hurt feelings on all sides. “Senior shirts” had been a long tradition at Riverboat High School. Each year the senior class designed a T-shirt, collected money from other seniors, and contracted with a local company to screen print shirts for the senior class. When Sharon first can to Riverboat High School, the shirts were relatively simple items, but they had become more complex and expensive over the past few years. Sharon sighed as she thought about this year’s shirt. The front of the shirt was simple enough. It read SENIORS 2011 and, in script, “The Best is Yet to Come.” However, on the back of the shirt was a purple, green, and gold Mardi Gras mask. Under the mask was the slogan “GOODBYE RHS: BURN IN HELL.” In the background Sharon could make out a figure, clearly female, tied to a cross with flames enveloping the lower torso.
As the Supreme Court stated in Tinker, “students possess the same constitutional rights as adults and that these rights do not end at the schoolhouse door.” Students do have rights to free expression, but their rights are balanced by the schools need to maintain an orderly and safe environment to promote the educational process. With regards to freedom of expression the question should focus on whether or not the shirts create a material or substantial disruption to the educational process? It is clear that the entire school community is aware of the events that happened involving the seniors who skipped school and went to Mardi Gras, therefore, a shirt referencing the event calls attention to skipping school and reckless alcohol use. This shirt disrupts the educational process and certainly undermines the school’s authority. The Morse v. Frederick case can be used to justify banning the shirts from school because the message of the shirt is inconsistent with the school’s mission.
In addition, Scott v. School Board of Alachua County established that schools can ban shirts with symbols on them, if the symbols are considered highly offensive. The image of a person burning on a cross could be understood as a reference to actions of the KKK. Although the school’s location wasn’t provided, it is located within driving distance of New Orleans and can be assumed to be in the Southern part of the US. A reference to the actions of the KKK would be highly offensive to minority students and parents; the administration could ban the shirts to protect students from possible violent confrontations that could arise from students being offended by the symbol of a person being burnt on a cross. Finally, the phrase “burn in hell” is certainly offensive language. In the case Bethel School District v. Fraser the court established that offensive language is not necessarily protected. Students are allowed to have controversial opinions, but that right must be balanced against the school’s interest in teaching appropriate behavior.
Principal Grey’s first action should be to get a photo of the front and back of the shirt and contact her school board and superintendent as soon as possible. Any action she ultimately takes needs the support of her superintendent and the school board, because there is a strong possibility that this will end up in court. Citing court cases like Morse v. Frederick, Scott v. School Board of Alachua County, and Bethel School District v. Fraser she should explain the need to ban the shirts from campus. Using the school’s student handbook, she should draft a document establishing the need to ban the shirt and the consequences for wearing the shirt on campus. In my school, administrators have the right to ban any offensive clothing. For violating the rule, students receive a warning for a first offense with a parent phone call; a detention and parent phone call for a second offense; an in-school suspension (up to three days) and a parental meeting for a third offense; an out of school suspension (up to three days) and a parental meeting for a fourth offense; a possible expulsion for a fifth offense. After contacting and explaining the situation thoroughly to the superintendent and school board, she should call a meeting with the senior class. Explaining very simply and calmly, she should inform the seniors that their shirts will be banned from campus and the consequences for violating the ban. Also, a written letter to the senior parents explaining the reasons for the ban and consequences for violating the ban should also be sent home immediately.