Dress code debate raises free speech issues Offensive sayings on T-shirts cited


Are T-shirts with such slogans as "In case of date rape, this end up" protected under the First Amendment or can they be banned under the Anne Arundel County School board's new sexual harassment policy?

The issue arose yesterday when a group from South River High School asked the eight-member school board to create a dress code. Regulations that will put the new sexual harassment policy into effect were already on the agenda.

"Students are wearing T-shirts that say 'In case of rape, this side up,' and they offend me, but I'm more concerned about marijuana jewelry, T-shirts with the marijuana leaf and shirts that promote the use of alcohol," said Lisa Bishop, a senior at South River.

She was joined by two parents, the school's Citizens Advisory Council president and the school's guidance counselor.

"I had a student tell me '---- you, I can wear anything I want," said Nancy Baker, chairwoman of the guidance department at South River. "That student is now suspended for saying '---- you,' but not for the T-shirt. It doesn't make sense. We're promoting a drug-free school zone, and we're letting them wear clothes that promote the use of drugs."

A Supreme Court ruling has generally protected T-shirt messages worn to school unless they create a disruption in the school system, making it a delicate issue to interfere with attire unless a school requires uniforms, said P. Tyson Bennett, the school system's lawyer.

"It's not necessarily a free speech issue, though," said Desira St. Pierre, the Broadneck Senior High student who serves on the county school board. "I think some of the shirts mentioned will fall under the sexual harassment policy, and then the students can get in a lot more trouble than being told to wear their shirt on backward while they're in school."

Board members promised to look into the issue, and afterward joined parents in peppering the staff with questions about how the new policy on sexual harassment will work.

"Why aren't parents notified at the time of the complaint?" asked Carolyn Roeding, president of the Anne Arundel County Council of PTAs. "It says in the regulations that the parents will only be notified if it's decided an investigation is warranted. As a parent, I would want to know right away if my child had complained of being sexually harassed or was being accused of it."

Another problem with notifying parents so late is that a student accused of harassment, or one making an accusation, would not be able to have a parent present during initial questioning by administrators, board member Jo Ann Tollenger said.

"I think we've set up a process that can be intimidating, where you've got a middle school student sitting in the middle of a roomful of adults who are saying 'Don't you lie now.' It's a very stressful situation."

Ms. Tollenger compared the need for a child advocate who was not part of the Board of Education staff to a rape victim's need for a crisis counselor to assist her through hospital and police procedures.

"Any teacher has the right to a union representative at the preliminary stages of the investigation," Ms. Tollenger said. "I don't see that happening for students . . ."

In other action yesterday, the board accepted a contract with its teachers that provides for 2 percent pay raises Jan. 1 and 4 percent raises July 1.

The 4 percent raise still must be approved by the County Council.

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