Column: Detroit students face suspension for First Amendment

By Andrew Mason

Just like clockwork the new school year rolls around, and with it come the latest round of Associated Press stories chronicling the latest to-do over free speech issues in our public schools. This year has proved no exception. But there’s a patriotic twist this time.

Last week at Lincoln Park High School in suburban Detroit seven students were sent home for violating the school’s dress code. Their offense? Wearing patriotic t-shirts on Sept. 11.

I’ll pause for a moment to give that a little time to sink in.

According to the new dress code that went into effect this year in Detroit Public School districts, no student is allowed to wear clothing with writing or pictures. The only acceptable shirts must be solid colored white, pink, blue, yellow or black. Just those five. We’re all too familiar with the threats red, green, orange and purple present to the educational process.

The only other forms of clothing allowed by the code are those that are supportive of the school, such as organizational logos or the mascot. If I were a student in the Detroit public school district, I know I would just be clamoring to show some school spirit right about now.

Only 48 percent of high school seniors in the Detroit City District met or exceeded scores in standardized reading tests last year. That number falls to a President Bush-like 29 percent in the written test. With numbers like that they ban writing on shirts? I think they need more writing on shirts, I think they need all the writing on shirts they can get, I’ll go so far as to demand they make writing on shirts mandatory.

But from the mouth of babes comes the voice of principled dissent. Three other young students named Jaicen, Monique and Jaymie Massa (13, 13 and 11 years old) also got sent home for violating the dress code. Their crime was wearing shirts with the text of the First Amendment and an American flag that their mother made for them.

The three kids said that they were inspired when they watched the movie Gandhi, of all things. They admired the Indian leader’s struggle against oppression by never resorting to violence and using only peaceful means of protest. This protest against the school could be seen by some as being wise-acres. But these students were sincere in their beliefs.

They came back to school wearing the shirts again and the school suspended them. It’s likely that they will end up getting expelled for championing the first amendment.

The American Civil Liberties Union has got their backs. That organization is considering challenging the dress code in court as being unconstitutional due to the exceptions for school related clothing.

Let’s use this as an educational opportunity. Sure, statistically speaking, Detroit students need to work on everything, but this is a time to provide them with an excellent lesson on how to be a citizen. What better way than to have a good public debate between the parents and the administration?

It is a mystery to me why the district imposed such an arbitrary ban when it could have easily just forbid revealing and offensive clothing. The only explanation why certain colors are allowed and not others is that those colors surely have better lobbyists.

Restricting a healthy display of patriotism in young people commemorating the biggest national event in their lifetimes just because of a dress code is beyond ridiculous. But it couldn’t be the position of the Detroit school district that the American flag cannot be worn on a t-shirt because it is distracting, could it? Because if it were, they should remove the flag from every classroom in the building while they’re at it.

Detroit will eventually sort out this mess, but in the meantime I’d like to salute Jaicen, Monique and Jaymie for demonstrating that no matter how young you are, you can still stand up for your beliefs.