Tennessee school board, students near settlement in lawsuit over dress code
School officials in Wilson County, Tenn., are nearing a settlement in a lawsuit brought by two students who were punished for wearing shirts criticizing the school dress code.
The school board met with its attorney Michael Jennings May 8 to discuss a settlement agreement in a federal lawsuit filed last year by the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee on behalf of Cory and Kista Vinson. The lawsuit claims the two students' First Amendment rights were violated when they were suspended for wearing protest logos to school in October 1999.
Cory, a Mt. Juliet High School student received a one-day suspension for wearing an ironed-on logo message on his shirt that read “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 dress code allowed students to wear only logos that included school names and mascots, said Director of Schools James Duncan.
U.S. District Judge John Nixon issued a temporary injunction last September prohibiting the school system from disciplining students who wore protest logos to school.
Since the fall, the county has unofficially permitted students to wear protest logos, Duncan said.
Under the settlement, the school board will officially modify its dress code to allow students to wear protest logos no larger than 4-by-3 inches on their shirts. In addition, Cory and Kista's disciplinary records will be expunged and the school system will pay part of their legal fees.
The two sides, however, are still negotiating the full terms of the agreement, said attorney Harris Gilbert, who is representing the students along with attorney Stephen Zralek.
It isn't clear exactly what types of protest emblems will be permitted under the modified dress code, said Duncan and school board member Ron Britt, who is against allowing students to wear logos of any type.
Duncan said the logos could possibly protest matters other than the dress code as long as the language is not “indecent, profane or [disruptive of] the educational process.” No students have worn such logos thus far, he said.
“We're not making a big deal out of it unless it's derogatory or depicts illegal activities,” Duncan said. “I feel [the dress code modification] addresses the parents' concerns and I hope we can move on to other things.”
Britt opposes logos because they are “a distraction to the learning environment,” he said. “Protest logos and brand name logos don't serve a lot of purpose,” Britt said.
“I don't believe a judge or somebody separate from the learning environment can make a decision about what adds or takes away from an educational environment.”
School officials plan to provide a bulletin board where students can voice their concerns about the dress code and other issues, Britt said. “It's OK for good people to disagree.”
In a May 8 e-mail message to freedomforum.org, Theresa Harmon, Cory and Kista's mother, wrote, “I wish they (school board members) had shown this willingness for compromise over a year ago instead of dragging this out like they have.”
Harmon has been teaching her children at home since they were suspended. In a May 8 article in The (Nashville) Tennessean, she said her children would probably return to county schools this fall.
Harmon has also expressed her sentiments on the Wilson County Parents Coalition Web site, created in 1999. In an editorial posted on the site, she said she opposes the dress code policy because it infringes on her parental rights and the constitutional rights of her children. The school policy is a “stepping stone for local, state and federal agencies to mandate away yet more rights and God-given responsibilities,” she wrote.
An unnamed Mt. Juliet High School student also voiced opposition to the dress code in an April 16 message posted on the site.
“The joys of wearing uniforms are wonderful, aren't they?” the student wrote. “We sit while the teacher looks at each one of us, checking our manner of dressing. Those not compliant are written up and sent to administrators to be disciplined properly. We've lost at least ten to 15 minutes of class time when the teacher finally gets back to the job she went to college for: teaching.”