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Junior High Student Challenges Simi Valley Dress Code : Education: Youth enlists ACLU's help to fight school district policy implemented to curb campus violence. His patriotic T-shirt is deemed improper attire.

October 04, 1994|TRACY WILSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A 14-year-old student who was sent home for wearing patriotic T-shirts has sued the Simi Valley Unified School District for allegedly violating his constitutional right to express himself.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing the student, said Monday that it will seek an injunction to prohibit Valley View Junior High School from enforcing its strict dress code, said Elizabeth Schroeder, associate director of the ACLU of Southern California.

The school's dress policy barred honor student John Spindler from wearing T-shirts with the American flag and the bald eagle emblazoned across the chest.

"The 1st Amendment does not stop at the school house doors," Schroeder said. "John is being denied access to school for one reason, and that is because school administrators do not want to decide what to allow and what not to allow."

Wearing his favorite American flag T-shirt at a news conference in Los Angeles, the ninth-grader said he wants to return to school, but is reluctant to bend to the school's policy.

"Every day I go in and ask if I can go to school, and they say I can't," he said. "I'm just supporting my country."

School district officials refused to comment on the pending litigation Monday, but they have previously denied that Valley View's dress code violates students' civil rights.

"Obviously, if we felt the policy was illegal or a violation of civil rights, we wouldn't have it," Assistant Supt. Susan C. Parks said Friday.

Parks said she was not surprised that the ACLU had taken John's case. "There was a lot of talk that they had talked to the ACLU, and when people do that you assume they are serious," Parks said.

School officials adopted the new policy over the summer in an attempt to curb campus violence after the fatal stabbing of a 14-year-old student at a school parking lot in February. The policy was recommended by a committee of parents, teachers and students.

School officials and some parents say the policy promotes a safe and professional learning environment.

The suit filed last week alleges that the junior high school's dress code is too broad, banning shirts adorned with any writing or pictures except school emblems. The policy violates students' constitutional rights to freely express their points of view, the suit said.

"This is not just a kid's protest," Schroeder said. "There is a constitutional issue at stake."

The suit also alleges that the dress code violates the state Constitution and the California Education Code.

"We are talking about a school trying to ban expression of its students," said ACLU attorney Robin Toma. "What is permissible is for schools to control activities that disrupt the educational process. There is no evidence that that has occurred."

John decided this summer not to follow the restrictive policy and purchased three T-shirts bearing patriotic symbols to wear to school instead.

His parents contacted the ACLU after school officials told their son that he would not be allowed to attend classes unless he adhered to the new code.

Other students have also opposed the policy, and about 50 staged a lunchtime rally last week. But John is the only student who has refused to comply.

At the request of the Spindlers, who want the code repealed, the Simi Valley school board is scheduled to discuss the district's dress code Oct. 18.

In the meantime, John will return to classes at Valley View wearing a plain T-shirt. "We do not want John to miss school for another 18 days," Schroeder said. "He will obey the current dress code."

John said he has missed his friends and classes, especially his physical education and industrial arts courses.

"It has been kind of frustrating," he said after the news conference Monday. "I know what I am doing is right."

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