The Devil Wears Winnie-the-Pooh? Lawsuit Charges Napa Middle School Dress Code Goes Too Far

March 20, 2007 12:00 am

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ACLU Says Expression of Ideas and Fashion Are not Safety Issues

NAPA, CA – Last year, 7th-grader Toni Kay Scott was sent to the principal’s office not because of a revealing see-through top, spiked collar or platform heels – but because her socks featured a picture of the Winnie-the-Pooh character Tigger.

Toni Kay was in violation of Redwood Middle School’s “Appropriate Attire Policy” which only allows solid-color clothes in blue, white, green, yellow, khaki, gray, brown and black. No jeans. Everything must be cotton twill, chino or corduroy. And no pictures, logos, words, or patterns of any kind, including stripes and flowers. Tigger didn’t have a chance.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California filed suit yesterday in Napa Superior Court seeking judicial relief from an unconstitutionally vague, overbroad and restrictive dress code enforced by Redwood Middle School and the Napa Valley Unified School District. The suit alleges that students are denied the ability to express political, religious, humorous and literary messages on their clothes or backpacks.

The ACLU of Northern California brought the lawsuit because students’ speech rights are protected by the First Amendment and state law. “The United States Supreme Court has long held that students do not shed their constitutional rights of freedom of speech and expression at the schoolhouse gate,” said ACLU of Northern California staff attorney Julia Harumi Mass.

While California law allows schools to establish “reasonable dress code policies” to address safety concerns, they must be supported by real safety needs. The suit alleges that Redwood Middle School’s policy overreaches by forcing an aesthetic conformity in the name of safety.

“This code is so restrictive that it is really a uniform, leaving no room for self-expression,” said Sharon L. O’Grady, an attorney at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP. O’Grady added that school uniform policies must allow parents to exempt their children from compliance, which has not been an option at Redwood Middle School. “They are enforcing a ‘school uniform’ under the guise of a ‘dress code’ and that’s in violation of the California Education Code,” said O’Grady, who is representing the plaintiff, along with the ACLU of Northern California.

Toni Kay again got the attention of school administrators when she wore a “D.A.R.E.” drug prevention shirt, which contained words and the color red – two things the school does not allow.

In addition, Toni Kay’s younger sister, 6th-grader Sydni Scott, also got in trouble for wearing a T-shirt with a pro-Christian message that Toni Kay got at a rock concert she attended with a youth group from the Grace Baptist Church. The shirt had the words “Jesus Freak” on front and the Bible scripture “Galatians 4:18” on back.

“Kids who want to express their opinions or ideas aren’t hurting anyone,” said Toni Kay, 14. “We should be able to show everyone who we are and have a way to express ourselves, as long as we aren’t showing off things that shouldn’t be shown off at school.”

Toni Kay and Sydni’s mother, Donnell Scott, said the school has gone beyond reason in its attempt to protect the students. “I agree; no midriffs, mini-skirts or cleavage. School is a place to learn. But anything above that should be my call as a parent. Pink socks and two-tones are not a crime. That’s just nitpicking.”

The suit is a joint effort by the ACLU of Northern California and cooperating attorneys from San Francisco law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP.

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