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Simi Schools Drop Dress Code Policy : District Agrees to End Restrictive Rule in Lawsuit Settlement With ACLU

March 09, 1995|TRACY WILSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Accused of violating students' First Amendment rights, the Simi Valley school district agreed Wednesday to throw out a dress code policy so restrictive that students were barred from wearing patriotic T-shirts to school.

The district will also pay more than $16,000 in legal fees in its settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a federal lawsuit against the district last fall on behalf of 14-year-old student John Spindler.

The ninth-grader was sent home from Valley View Junior High School after wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the American flag and other national symbols that violated the school's dress code.

Aimed at enhancing school safety, the policy forbade students from wearing T-shirts adorned with any writing or pictures except school emblems.

ACLU attorneys said the policy violated students' constitutional rights to freely express themselves.

The school will retain the rest of its dress code, but will allow students to wear shirts conveying "an expression of thoughts or ideas." Shirts bearing vulgar or sexually suggestive slogans will remain taboo, as will baggy pants, steel-toed shoes and skirts not of "modest length."

A federal judge announced the settlement agreement Wednesday.

"I congratulate both sides on their wisdom and foresight in settling this dispute," Senior U. S. District Judge Irving Hill said. "I am delighted that the case has been resolved in this fashion."

Wearing his American flag T-shirt, John stood on the steps of the U. S. District Courthouse in Los Angeles with his parents Wednesday, and said he was relieved the case had been resolved.

"I am happy that it is settled," he said. "Now I can go to school wearing my T-shirts."

The boy said he planned to wear one of his patriotic shirts to school Monday, when the policy is officially rescinded. Attorneys agreed to give the school district a few days to notify parents before changing the dress code.

Marvin Krakow, the ACLU lawyer handling the case, said the civil rights group was confident it could have won the case in court, but was pleased a lengthy trial was averted.

"The junior high dress code is an incursion on the First Amendment," Krakow said. "Students don't leave their First Amendment rights at the school house door . . . students have the right to express themselves."

Walking out of the courtroom Wednesday, Supt. Mary Beth Wolford said school officials were ready to put the issue behind them.

"We worked very hard to get this resolved," she said. "It is now time to move on."

Although officials contend the policy does not violate students' rights, fighting the case in court would have been too expensive, Wolford said.

"We believe the staff and the principal were working to be proactive in trying to address safety," Wolford said. "But you never know when you go to court how it could turn.

"Even though we felt we were right, cost was a factor," she added.

The agreement said the school could not prohibit John from wearing his "USA" T-shirt or prohibit other students from wearing shirts that are expressive of thoughts or ideas, school attorney Aurora Hughes said.

Also, the settlement stipulated that the school cannot insert documents relating to this case into the youth's school file.

John's parents contacted the ACLU last fall after their son was told he could not attend classes unless he adhered to the school's dress code.

The policy was created last summer to improve campus safety after the fatal schoolyard stabbing of a 14-year-old student last year.

Since September, family members have been thrown into a whirlwind of media attention, alternately praised and criticized by strangers for their stand against the policy.

Among the most memorable of the comments was a message left on the family's answering machine that called them "dirty rotten Communists," said John's mother, Ellen Spindler.

John has saved news clippings on the case and said he looks forward to the day he will tell his children about his fight against the school system.

"I will tell them I learned a lot about my rights," he said. "(And) I will tell them what I went through."

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