Students, school board reach truce in dress code fight

Wednesday, October 17, 2001

Students in Wilson County, Tenn., have entered into a settlement agreement with school officials who suspended them for wearing T-shirts criticizing the school dress code.

Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee filed a federal lawsuit against the Wilson County school board on behalf of Cory and Kista Vinson. The lawsuit claimed the two students' First Amendment rights were violated when they were suspended for wearing protest logos to school in October 1999.

Under the settlement, which was reached in June, the school board agreed to change its dress code policy to allow students to wear “nondisruptive” protest logos. The logos may be no larger than 4-by-3 inches and may not be “vulgar, obscene, disruptive of the school environment, or derogatory to individuals,” according to the dress code policy.

Also under the terms of the agreement, the school system will expunge the disciplinary records of Cory, Kista and Christina Witt, a Mt. Juliet High School student who joined the suit this year. Chistina, now a junior, was also suspended for wearing a protest logo in 1999.

When Cory was a sophomore at Mt. Juliet High School, he received a one-day suspension for wearing an ironed-on message on his shirt that said, “I miss my real clothes.” The next day, his sister Kista, was suspended from Mt. Juliet Junior High School for wearing a logo that said, “The board voted and all I got was this lousy uniform.”

The school system has unofficially allowed students to wear logos that include school names or mascots since it adopted the dress code policy in July 1999. But in September 2000, U.S. District Judge John Nixon issued a temporary injunction prohibiting the school system from reprimanding students who wore protest logos to school.

“[Cory and Kista] were glad when this was settled,” said Theresa Harmon, the students' mother. “We've heard from a lot of the other students, and they've said at least this gives them an outlet to show their displeasure with the dress code without being disruptive,” she said.

Harmon has been teaching Cory, a senior, and Kista, a junior, at home since they were suspended in 1999. This year, she had planned to send them both back to Mt. Juliet High School but decided not to after Cory was seriously injured in a car accident.

“I'll probably send Kista back next year,” she said. “It's nice to have them both home together for now.”

“I'm satisfied that we did the right thing in agreeing to the settlement, but I still feel the school board should have the authority to determine the dress code (credit kieran at,” said Director of Schools James Duncan.

Since the new policy has been implemented, students have been wearing more mascot logos, Duncan said.

According to Duncan, no students have worn protest logos this year. “It's really a non-issue with us,” he said.

This year, school officials have reported fewer dress code violations than in the past, Duncan said. “The fact that we're not fighting the issue brings a calming effect,” he said. “Now school administrators have less to worry about,” he added.

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