ATLANTA — A federal judge has ruled that a suburban Atlanta school district's policy against gang clothing was unconstitutional because it was too vague.
U.S. District Judge Beverly Martin ruled that the original dress-code rules by Gwinnett County Public Schools and Brookwood High School were too vague to "apprise a person of ordinary intelligence of its requirements." She also wrote in the Nov. 23 ruling that the rules gave school officials "unfettered discretion" to determine exactly what constitutes gang-related activity.
"I'm very pleased the courts weighed in on the students' constitutional rights," said Marlyn Tillman of Snellville, Ga., who sued the school district in April 2004 after her son, an honor student, was disciplined multiple times after coming to school wearing clothes that school officials said were gang-related. School officials claim the suspensions stemmed at least in part from the student's conduct while he was being questioned about his clothing.
"You shouldn't have to leave all of your rights outside of the school ... that is supposed to teach you about your rights," Tillman said on Nov. 30.
During the 2002-2003 and 2003-2004 school years, the school district's policy prohibited any "conduct to represent a gang or group affiliation, loyalty or membership" and allowed school principals to create dress-code policies. The high school's dress-code prohibitions included banning head gear and clothes that had reference to gangs.
The court said the district's policy was too vague because it failed to define what constituted gang-related activity or even what a gang was. The high school policy also failed to identify what a gang, gang words or gang symbols were, Martin said.
Some of the items her son, who only was identified as "John Doe" in the case, was punished for wearing were ordinary — they included a University of North Carolina jersey and a red Ralph Lauren polo shirt, Tillman said. The punishments — which included a suspension, detention and Saturday school — made her think her son was the victim of racial profiling because he is black.
"I didn't know what to think. If you can wear a Ralph Lauren polo shirt and you're a gang member? I mean, come on," Tillman said, who said other black students also felt they also were singled out for their clothing choices. "It stops the persecution for a lot of the kids."
In 2002, the student was punished as a middle school student for gang-related activity for wearing the university jersey in combination with a headband and hat.
School officials said the student received Saturday school a year later at Brookwood High School when he wore the polo shirt in combination with a black wristband and a headscarf, which school officials said could be considered an indicator that he was a member of the "Bloods" gang, according to court documents.
The high school suspended him later in 2003 for wearing a self-styled shirt that contained what school officials believed were letters representing gang references, the documents said.
School district spokeswoman Sloan Roach said in a statement that Martin's ruling was "simply one stage of the legal process."
Roach said the court affirmed school district lawyers' arguments that the school had a "legitimate interest" in prohibiting gang-related clothing and that the district did not violate the student's First Amendment rights because "the individual's style of dress is not entitled to constitutional protection."
For the 2004-2005 school years, both the school district and the high school amended their gang-related clothing policies. Martin ruled that the district's amended dress-code policy was acceptable because it was more detailed. But she said the high school's revised policy was still too vague because it included a provision that bans clothing that faculty or staff members believe is distracting.
Under the judge's order, the case will go to trial to resolve issues that include the actual reasons for the suspensions, monetary damages sought in the case and whether the teenager's school record should be expunged, said Beth Littrell, attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, who supported Tillman in her lawsuit.