OPELIKA, Ala. Up to 40 public middle-school students were told to change their clothes or have their parents pick them up because they wore T-shirts with Confederate imagery, according to angry parents.
The county's schools superintendent downplayed the incident at Sanford Middle School, saying no one was forced to go home and the school's principal merely wanted to prevent racial tension among students.
But up to 40 students were forced to sit in the principal's office for several hours on Oct. 21 before being told to change clothes or go home, parents said.
"I think they went overboard," said Cathy Weldon, who has a seventh-grade daughter at the school. Weldon said her daughter was told to replace a shirt she was wearing that displayed an image of the Rebel flag.
John Painter, Lee County schools superintendent, said on Oct. 23 that he backed principal Michelle Rutherford's decision to ask students wearing Rebel-flag T-shirts to change clothes. He claimed about 10 students were involved.
Painter said the principal's request stemmed from an incident more than a week earlier in which a single student came to school decked out in Confederate symbols, including a belt buckle, necklace and T-shirt.
Several students complained about that student. On Oct. 21, a group of students reacted by showing up at school in Rebel-flag T-shirts in an effort to provoke the students who had complained, school officials said.
Painter said the students were asked to get different clothes from home or else wear gym shirts the principal provided, Painter said. "No one was suspended from school," he said.
Painter said the principal took time to explain to students that they have a First Amendment right to freedom of expression but that administrators have to do what's necessary to keep students safe.
"Regulating dress in a general way is a no-win situation unless something is so lewd or so clearly offensive" it has to be banned, Painter said.
Painter said school administrators will stick to a policy of making judgment calls on student dress rather than outlaw specific types of clothing outright.
Wanda McCullers said her son, a seventh grader, told her he was forced to sit in the office for about three hours before calling her to come pick him up.
Her son came to school wearing a T-shirt made by Dixie Outfitters with a picture of a quarter horse on the front with a Rebel flag in the background.
"My son is not trying to start any problems," McCullers said. "There is nothing wrong with those shirts. I don't understand it."