Incidents involving students wearing anti-abortion T-shirts to school set off disputes in public schools in Des Moines, Iowa, and Knoxville, Tenn., last week.
Tamera Chandler, 18, a senior, and her sister, Brittany, 15, wore shirts that read "Abortion Kills Kids" and featured a picture of a fetus to school on April 26.
Principal Anita Micich told the girls to change or cover the shirts after teachers expressed concern about other students' reaction.
The sisters claimed the request violated their rights. The Iowa Civil Liberties Union agreed and offered to help.
The girls' parents, Tim and Robin Chandler, said Micich later apologized and clarified some misinformation they had heard.
School administrators never threatened suspension for the two girls, Tim Chandler said.
Micich apologized to Tim Chandler on April 28 and to the girls and their mother, Robin Chandler, the next morning.
Micich said school officials at first mistakenly thought the T-shirts had interrupted a classroom, when in reality some students confronted the Chandler girls in a hallway. A teacher heard the students complaining, called the office, and the sisters were called out of their next class.
The girls can wear their anti-abortion T-shirts any time they choose, Micich said on April 29. "I want to be sure all kids are protected in what they express," she said. "If other students are upset, we'll talk to them."
The Chandlers wore the shirts as part of National Pro-Life T-shirt Day, organized by American Life Alliance. Erik Whittington, the group's youth outreach coordinator, said about 15,000 students took part and some also were told to cover or change their shirts.
Whittington said students who react in a disruptive way to the shirts, not those wearing them, should be punished.
Iowa Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Ben Stone noted that an ICLU case at Roosevelt involving students who wore black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In the 1969 case Tinker v. Des Moines, the Court ruled that students do not "shed their constitutional rights ... at the schoolhouse gate."
However, the Roosevelt handbook states that students who wear "such clothing that disrupts or interferes with the safe or orderly operation of the school or learning environment will also be asked to change such clothing."
And in the years since Tinker, other cases have deferred to school teachers and administrators "as long as they are acting out of a concern" about the educational environment, said Randall Bezanson, a University of Iowa law professor.
In Knoxville, a fifth-grade girl hoping to participate in National Pro-Life T-shirt Day ended up going home from school after the principal said the shirt she wore was inappropriate.
The maroon shirt showed a picture of a fetus' head with the words "ABORTION KILLS KIDS" in capital letters below it.
A. L. Lotts Elementary School principal Emily Lenn told the girl's mother, Debbie Williams, the shirt was inappropriate and said the student would have to cover the message or remove the shirt. Instead, Williams took her daughter home for the day, she told The Knoxville News Sentinel, which agreed to her request to not name the girl or show her face in a picture appearing on its April 29 front page.
"It was the particular pictures and words that with our young children — we have 5-year-olds here — I just didn't feel that was an appropriate thing for our little ones to see," Lenn said.
The principal said the girl could wear a more subdued shirt that said something more positive like "choose life."
Williams said she was happy with that compromise.
"I just wanted (my daughter) not to feel like she was being penalized for standing up for what she feels is right," she said.
Williams said her daughter told her she wanted to wear the shirt because "I don't think that we should kill babies."
"Being a fifth-grader," Williams said, "she's not going to go into a whole lot of theology."
The girl first wore the shirt to school a few weeks ago, and administrators asked her to turn it inside-out, Williams said.
Knox County elementary school students are not allowed to wear clothing with "offensive, vulgar language or images," according to dress code rules.
"We definitely want anyone and everyone to be involved, but we do generally target young people for many reasons," said Whittington of American Life Alliance. "One is, they're the survivors of the abortion holocaust."
Jeff Teague, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Middle and East Tennessee, said he agreed with the school principal.
"I think that the principal's position is very reasonable because using inflammatory language and images with young students is irresponsible and can be frightening," he said.