ACLU decries Pa. school district's reaction to T-shirt protest

By The Associated Press

PALMERTON, Pa. — The American Civil Liberties Union says an eastern Pennsylvania school district was wrong to reprimand students who wore T-shirts protesting the district's new dress code.

Dozens of students showed up to class in the Palmerton Area School District Sept. 15 wearing white shirts emblazoned with "Property of PHS" and their student identification numbers. Students were told to remove them or face in-school suspensions, and at least one student said he was suspended for refusing to change his shirt.

ACLU staff attorney Valerie Burch of the Harrisburg office said Palmerton officials overstepped their bounds, and at least one suspended student has been in touch with the ACLU.

"I hope students and parents contact us because I don't want to see these bright kids in trouble for their beliefs," Burch said. "Schools should be encouraging students to exhibit their political will. That's all they did. That's American."

Palmerton students have been protesting a new dress code that bans piercings in any body part other than the ears and limits the coloring of hair.

Palmerton school solicitor Steven Serfass said he had not been contacted by the ACLU.

"Generally speaking, the board will have no further comment on what is essentially a discipline matter," he said.

Palmerton Area School Board member Carol Dwyer said the initial code also banned hooded sweat shirts and ripped jeans, along with other types of clothing, but those provisions were dropped after parents complained. Superintendent Carol Boyce said the only portion of the policy that went into effect this school year covered bans on piercing and fluorescent hair.

Senior Brandon Mazepa, 17, has no facial piercings and doesn't dye his dark brown hair, but he said he decided to protest what he saw as an injustice. He said he took a one-day suspension rather than remove the T-shirt, then called the ACLU.

"That's the new thing now is getting piercings and dyed hair," Mazepa said. "When Elvis Presley first came out, parents didn't appreciate how he danced, but now when you see it, it's like old news. This is something new."

David L. Hudson Jr., a scholar at the First Amendment Center in Nashville, Tenn., said the courts have allowed schools to restrict students' freedom of expression if the expression would create a “substantial or material disruption of school, and they have also upheld bans on clothing or speech that is vulgar or advocates drug and alcohol use or sex.”

''The law is fairly friendly to school officials,'' Hudson told the Morning Call.

Burch said the shirts worn by Palmerton students were not disruptive and conveyed the type of political messages protected by the First Amendment.

Bob Richards of the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment at Penn State University said the only disruption came when students were pulled out of class for wearing the shirts.

"You can't have a situation where the only disturbance is the one created by the school officials," Richards said. "Without a substantial material disruption in the operation of school, school officials are not on solid ground legally and are subject to a First Amendment challenge."