The Watson Chapel School District has followed through on its threat to suspend students who wore black armbands to school today in protest of the school district's uniform policy. Rita Sklar of the ACLU says the organization will follow through on its promise to sue in fedeal court. She says:
They are suspending students as we speak. Some are being given the choice to take them off or be suspended. some have reported taking them off and not being sent home. At least one reported having said no at first and then doing so and getting suspended anyway. Also, I hear teachers are throwing the armbands away or telling the kids to do so. We will be in federal court early next week, perhaps Monday.
Yesterday we contacted the attorney for the school district. They were forewarned. We did not hear back from nor could we reach the attorney after that.
Watson Chapel has required uniforms since 1999, but stirred up some families by taking steps this year to write the guidelines in a way that they'd be more consistent. There might have been differences, for example, in the types of khaki pants found acceptable in the past in junior high vs. high school.
The school district believes that, while a famous Supreme Court case allowed the wearing of armbands as a war protest, another Fifth Circuit court decision supports their actions. We disagree. The Canady v. Bossier case held that a uniform requirement was not a violation of First Amendment rights in itself. But that case did not address a case in which student protested not the uniform, but the inability to protest by wearing an armband. In short, can a uniform rule be used to override the First Amendment? We hope not. In the Louisiana case, the court held that the uniforms alone did not contain "sufficient communicative content" to merit protection for clothing under the First Amendment. Clearly, however, the armbands contain such content.
UPDATE: Please see a thoughtful essay on this subject filed as a comment on yesterday's post by a former Watson Chapel teacher.
UPDATE II: Opponents of the uniform policy say they've finally been given a slot to air their grievances before an extended meeting of the school board Monday night.
Superintendent Danny Knight said the uniform policy is progressive. A first violation results in a warning, future violations can have lengthening suspensions. Today, he said, about six high school students had been warned or suspended for wearing armbands and 24 or 25 junior high students, many of them who’d been multiple violators othe uniform policy.
Knight said the rules are clear that “any attempt to defeat the policy” is prohibited. “I guess if the ACLU wants to pursue it they have that right.”
He added: “I’m old school. A child is in school for six and a half hours a day and it’s not too much to ask in order for us to have a safer environment for you to go to school in.”
He said the district tried to be “fair and consistent and I think we are.”