Schools react — and overreact — to Littleton tragedy

Wednesday, June 2, 1999

Across the country, schools have been cracking down on dress and speech, sometimes at the expense of students' First Amendment rights.

“School officials don't seem to understand that all they are doing is increasing frustration among students,” Mark Goodman, executive director for the Student Press Law Center, said. “I see bleak times ahead for student expression.”

Goodman said that overreactions to minor incidents show how inadequately school officials understand the civil rights of their students and how willing they are to compromise those rights.

Tomorrow the U.S. District Court in Richmond, Va., will hear a case that Goodman describes as “ludicrous.” The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia is suing Surry County Public Schools on behalf of Kent McNew, 16, who was suspended recently from Surry County High School for having blue hair.

Kent Willis, executive director for the ACLU in Virginia, said that he has been swamped with calls, e-mails and letters from parents whose children have been suspended from school for “irrational” reasons. McNew's case represents the extreme, he said.

In December, McNew dyed a tuft of hair on the top of his head blue. But school officials did not mention suspension or a new rule forbidding unusual hair colors like green and blue until after the shootings at Columbine High School in April.

“The policy is newer than [McNew's] hair,” Willis said, adding that he has yet to see a copy of the actual rule.

“There is absolutely no relation between the color of a student's hair and school safety,” he said. The school cannot prove that McNew's hair has disrupted the educational process in any way, said Willis.

“The idea that a student with blue hair is a security risk is ludicrous,” Goodman said. “Administrators want robots. They want a world with no conflict, no individuality, no disagreement.”

Willis said that the school had originally agreed to reinstate McNew if he made a “good faith” effort to remove the blue from his hair. After the student and his mother tried to remove the color and only succeeded in making it a lighter shade of blue, school officials refused to allow him to return. The only option left is to shave, leaving a bald spot on the top of his head — which is not an option, Willis said.

“Schools have undermined their own authority by acting so irrational(ly),” Willis said. “[Their reactions] come from the notion that if they can corral all students and make them act and look the same, then school will be a safer place.”

Assistant Superintendent Alvin W. Wilson, acting principal of Surry County High School, said that he was not at liberty to discuss McNew's suspension.

If student appearance is a concern, student speech is an area in which school officials are vigilant as never before. In the wake of the Littleton killings and incidents in Georgia and Texas, comments previously dismissed as adolescent hyperbole are now treated as deadly serious.

In Fullerton, Calif., for instance, Tyler Easton, 12, was suspended from Raymond Elementary School for jokingly telling a friend: “I'll kill you if you step on my shoes.”

Within two hours of Easton's suspension, police went to his classroom and told students that they would never see Easton again, said Mark Lopez, director of School Watch/SENTRY, an organization which defends kids in expulsion hearings. “The district collapsed,” Lopez said.

“Kids are insensitive, immature, and they like to mess around,” Lopez said. Schools need to realize that the students behavior is inappropriate, not terrorist, he said.

Lopez — who helped get Easton reinstated in school — says that in order to curb further incidents, families need to know that school districts are on a rampage. And citizens need to let the districts know that overreactions are unacceptable.

“We need public discourse,” he said.

Lopez cited another case at Huntington Park High School in Huntington Park, Calif., where a senior — on course to graduate — was escorted off campus by police for allegedly making terrorist threats.

Martin Olive had been heard joking with friends in the gym that there was a bomb under him. Released under $25,000 bond, he has been out of school since May 7. According to Lopez, principal Emilio Garcia told Olive's Spanish-speaking mother that neither parents nor students have any rights in such situations.

While it's not surprising that perceived threats of violence sometimes prompt overreaction in the schools today, it's more difficult to understand why even seemingly innocuous student expression is out of bounds.

Recently members of the graduating class of Alameda High School near Denver were prohibited from wearing blue-and-silver ribbons on their graduation gowns to show respect for the families of the Columbine victims.

The ACLU of Colorado tried unsuccessfully to secure an emergency temporary restraining order before the May 24 graduation. Contacted the Thursday before Alameda's Monday ceremony, the ACLU filed for the temporary restraining order on Friday; the request was denied the same day.

“We didn't really have time to litigate,” Mark Silverstein, legal director for the Colorado ACLU, said.

Deborah Williams, principal of Alameda High School, said that she was following district policy in not allowing the ribbons to be worn.

The ribbons “clearly represented a message that is hard to imagine school officials disagreeing with,” observed the Student Press Law Center's Goodman. “The Supreme Court says that students have the right to wear black arm bands to protest war, but they can't show support for suffering families in Littleton by wearing ribbons?”

By overreacting, school officials “are masking the problem and only pushing the issues at hand below the surface.” Goodman said he hopes cooler heads will prevail over the summer.