Suspensions rekindle mother’s fight against school dress code

Tuesday, October 19, 1999

The mother of two Wilson County, Tenn., public school students who were suspended last week for violating the dress code says the school board is trampling on her kids' free-expression rights.

Cory Vinson, a sophomore at Mt. Juliet High School, received a one-day suspension on Oct. 11 for wearing an ironed-on message on his shirt that said “I miss my real clothes.” His sister, Kista Vinson, was suspended the next day from Mt. Juliet Junior High School for a similar message on her shirt that read “The board voted and all I got was this lousy uniform.”

The mother of the two teens, Theresa Harmon, contends the actions of school officials violated her children's First Amendment rights to freedom of expression. “The school officials would rather uphold board policy than the U.S. Constitution,” she said.

The Wilson County School Board instituted a new dress code last July, requiring students to wear shirts with collars in solid white, navy blue or hunter green. Students may only wear solid navy blue, khaki, hunter green or black skirts or pants.

Harmon has been an outspoken critic of the dress code. She, along with Shirley Cox, formed the Wilson County Parents Coalition to raise public awareness against mandatory public school dress codes. She also created the group's Web site.

On the site, Harmon writes that “our rights and our children's rights are being taken away a little bit at a time. It is past time for the citizens of this country to band together and put a stop to these encroachments before it is too late.”

She contends that her children have been singled out because of her criticism of the board. “There were other children — whose parents are also members of the Wilson County Parents Coalition — who wore similar logos who were not suspended,” she said. “My children were targeted because of my speech.”

She says she is both “scared and angered” by the board's action in suspending her children. She wants to fight a legal battle against the policy and is “hoping for assistance.” She has contacted the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee.

Hedy Weinberg, the group's executive director, said she was “looking into the situation and has shared information” with the ACLU's national office. “This appears to be a classic example of school administrators taking away students' free-expression rights,” she said.

“I think the board knows that people don't have the money to fight the dress code policy, and that's why they can get away with this,” Harmon said.

Calls placed to the Wilson County superintendent's office were not returned.