A group of Webb City, Mo., high school students were sent home after they wore homemade gay-pride T-shirts in support of a classmate who is at the center of a legal dispute over the school district's dress code.
Ron Lankford, superintendent of Webb City R-7 School District, said students were given the option Tuesday of changing their shirts or going home. Seven students went home, while three agreed to change. "It was their choice," Lankford said. "I think our administrators handled it correctly."
Students made the shirts in support of Brad Mathewson, a 16-year-old classmate who is gay. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit against the southwest Missouri school district on November 23 for prohibiting Mathewson from wearing gay-pride-themed T-shirts. Mathewson also was given the choice of changing or going home when he wore T-shirts to class bearing the insignia of the Gay-Straight Alliance at his former high school in Fayetteville, Ark. School officials have said the shirts were disruptive and therefore a violation of school dress code.
The ACLU is basing its case on the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in a 1969 case, Tinker v. Des Moines. In that case the court ruled that schools cannot force students to give up their right to freedom of expression. Lankford said the school district can substantiate its claims that Mathewson's shirts were disruptive and distracting, but he did not give details.
LaStaysha Myers, 15, said an administrator spotted the students shortly after they arrived at school Tuesday and told them to report to the principal's office. The front of the shirts, made by Myers, stated, "If this shirt offends you, look the other way." The back, among other messages, stated, "We have the right to be who we want to be" and "We support gay rights." Other students donned shirts with messages such as "I'm gay and I'm proud" and "I have a gay friend and I'm proud of him."
Aliesha Thompson, whose daughter was among those sent home, said she supported the school's position that the shirts are a distraction. Thompson said she believes her daughter gave in to peer pressure. "It was fine that she was sent home," Thompson said. "I would have never let her wear that shirt to school."
Dick Kurtenbach, executive director of the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri, said sending the students home Tuesday "perpetuates the same violation of rights that took place in Brad's case." Kurtenbach said the ACLU is asking the school to enforce its dress code equally. Shirts promoting drugs, alcohol, or violence clearly violate the dress code, he said.