Court Orders School to Enroll Honors Student Who Protested Mandatory Uniform Policy

Affiliate: ACLU of New Mexico
August 15, 2000 12:00 am

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ALBUQUERQUE — A sixth-grade honors student in Las Cruces started school today with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, when a federal judge forced officials to enroll him after they turned him away because he opposes school uniforms.

U.S. District Court Judge James Parker issued a temporary restraining order, directing officials to allow 11-year old Justin Guiffre attend Sierra Middle School, a magnet school for science and math.

“Judge Parker recognized that Justin’s free speech rights were of such importance that an immediate order was necessary to protect and preserve that right,” said Linda Vanzi, a cooperating attorney for the ACLU of New Mexico. “We are very pleased that — in the words of the United States Supreme Court — Justin Guiffre was not made to shed his constitutional right to freedom of speech at the schoolhouse gate.”

Justin is an honors student who went to Fairacres Elementary School in Las Cruces. He was named the top student for academic success in the fifth grade at Fairacres and received the Presidential Award for Educational Excellence in recognition of outstanding academic achievement for the year 2000. He received an additional award for being the only fifth-grade student at Fairacres for having straight A’s throughout the school year.

He was named a “Millennium Dreamer” for his proactive campaign to change the dress code at his elementary school. “Millennium Dreamers” is a contest sponsored by McDonald’s restaurants and Walt Disney World, and endorsed by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Justin was one of 2,000 young people from over 120 countries to receive the award for “outstanding contribution to their community.”

Justin’s Advanced Education Services case manager nominated him for the award. In the nomination, she said that “Justin Guiffre has positively impacted his community by challenging the school system, from within, to try to change mandatory uniform dress policy…Under great pressure, Justin displays courage, citizenship, strong leadership, and a willingness to stand up for democracy.”

But Nyeta Fields, the principal at Sierra Middle Schools, apparently did not want Justin contributing to her school’s community. Though he had previously been accepted to the Sierra Middle School’s magnet science program, scoring 4th out of 185 applicants, he received a letter of rejection from the program the day after an article about Justin’s “Millennium Dreamer” award was published in the El Paso Times.

Principal Fields wrote that “it is apparent that Justin wishes to pursue the uniformly dressed issue. Therefore, he cannot fulfill the necessary commitments that all students make to attend the magnet program.” She went on to say that “I believe that Justin should attend a school that does not require him to be uncomfortable ‘within his own value system and with his personal identity.”

After being unable to resolve the dispute themselves, Justin and his parents contacted the ACLU of New Mexico for help. Attorneys Linda Vanzi, Jane Gagne, and Joleen Youngers took the case for the ACLU.

“The school’s action was a clear violation of Justin’s free speech rights, ” Vanzi said. “Justin and his parents had repeatedly said that he would comply with the dress code even as he continued to advocate for his position. Still, the school chose to punish him solely on his beliefs.”

Later this week, Judge Parker will consider whether Guiffré can stay at Sierra Middle School permanently.

“Maybe this decision will help the Las Cruces School District get their priorities straight,” said Denise Clegg, Acting Executive Director of the local ACLU. “They shouldn’t be denying education and browbeating students for believing in something and standing up in a democratic and responsible fashion. The United Nations and even McDonald’s and Disney and rewarded him for his citizenship-why couldn’t Principal Fields see the value in that?”

“Unfortunately, this is a growing problem in some of our schools,” she added. “Some officials are beginning to care more about rules and conformity than they do about our children. They punish leadership and individuality in students and drown out the hard work of excellent teachers and administrators who are trying to shape minds.”

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