TIFTON, Ga. A teenager was back in class on May 6 after receiving a one-day suspension for wearing a T-shirt with slogans including “freedom of expression” and “don’t drink and drive” that school administrators considered disruptive.
Hanna Smith, 18, a junior at Tift County High School, said Principal Mike Duck told her that if she wore the shirt again she would be suspended for the remainder of the year.
The principal was arrested six years ago for DUI and running a stop sign, The Tifton Gazette said May 6 in a story on Smith’s suspension. Duck made a public apology for the DUI and was himself suspended for five days.
Smith’s mother, Tracy Fletcher, said she would defend her daughter’s right to express herself, even if it meant hiring an attorney and taking the case to court.
“They want everyone to fit into a mold, and there’s no room for individuality. These kids are our future, I think they should be treated with a little more respect. Their opinions count. Their thoughts count,” Fletcher said.
The principal confirmed that Smith was back in class on May 6 without the banned T-shirt, which also had a peace symbol on the front and “Veritas,” which means truth, written on the back.
On May 6, Smith wore a different T-shirt, this one reading “Don’t Underestimate Individuality,” her mother said. The first letters of those words spell “DUI.” Her mother said the teen planned to wear the banned T-shirt again today.
Duck said he could not comment on the suspension.
“We can’t discuss children and their issue,” he said. “It’s a matter of privacy and protection of their rights.”
The school system’s dress code forbids disruptive clothing, grooming and symbols. Principals decide what’s disruptive.
“I have an obligation to maintain an orderly environment,” Duck said. “The courts give me the authority and the right to make those decisions and as long as I’m sitting in this chair that’s what I’m going to do.”
There have been other recent controversies in the school over students’ T-shirts, the Gazette reported. In one instance, a student was asked to change or be suspended for wearing a shirt bearing an anarchy symbol. In response, 40 students, including Smith, came to school the next day wearing shirts bearing various “freedom” slogans, the newspaper said.
Smith said she learned about constitutional rights, such as freedom of expression, in class and wishes school officials would honor them.
“I think it’s silly that we can’t practice the freedoms that they teach us here,” Smith said. “You would think that school officials would have respect for the law and people’s rights, or at least they should.”