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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

Ban on 'Bong' T-Shirts Goes Up in Smoke

May 26, 2000|MIKE DOWNEY

There is nothing even a little funny about the rash of incidents at America's high schools involving student violence and/or drug use.

There is nothing even a little funny about the efforts to restore order to our schools being made by teachers and/or parents.

Or is there?

Something a little funny did happen recently, affecting a student body from Winnebago County and a business based in Orange County.

And it's essential that we keep a sense of humor, even in serious times, because: (a) Hey, we're only human; (b) If we don't laugh at ourselves, somebody else will, and (c) A mind continues to be a terrible thing to waste.

Besides, this is a story that contains no death, illness, crime, racism, sexism or sex, and when's the last time you got to read one of those?

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Now, the first thing you're probably asking yourself is:

"Winnebago County?"

You mean there's a whole county out there somewhere named after a gigantic recreational vehicle?

Well, yes and no.

Winnebago County does indeed exist, in the heart (well, abdomen) of one of the prettiest states in the union, Wisconsin. If you would like to know exactly where Winnebago County is, it's due north of Fond du Lac and a little south of Little Chute. OK? That should clear this up for you.

The county was named for a tribe of Native Americans known to inhabit eastern Wisconsin and parts of Nebraska, not for an RV with a sink and a microwave.

Anyway, there on the banks of beautiful Lake Poygan sits a friendly town called Winneconne. It is a place where if parents wish to dress toddlers in the popular Oshkosh line of clothing, they can drive right down the road to Oshkosh to buy them.

Like adults elsewhere, Winneconne parents want their kids to be safe, to behave sensibly and to grow up to be responsible grownups. And administrators of their schools feel the same.

So, when they started hearing about students from other states who were troubled--or students who might cause trouble--it hit home.

After all, there'd been so much talk about black trench coats and other cult paraphernalia. Winneconne High School's faculty wanted to watch for danger signs that certain pupils might be bad apples.

Sure enough, bong, there came something alarming.

A few students had begun coming to class in inappropriate, some would even say disturbing clothing--T-shirts with the word "bong" printed prominently on them. A bong being a pipe utilized in smoking marijuana, school was obviously no place for this kind of radical pro-dope apparel!

Adam Szadkowski, a junior, wore one, and a math teacher instructed him to march directly to a restroom and turn it inside out.

Then the school banned the shirts.

Swift, decisive action. That's what this land of ours needs more of--role models to teach younger generations how to conduct themselves properly.

Uh, except for one thing.

What was written on the shirt wasn't "bong." What was written on the shirt was "Billabong"--as common a brand name as Nike or Abercrombie & Fitch.

The shirts are manufactured by Billabong USA, a company headquartered in Irvine. The word is Australian in origin and defines a branch to a lagoon, a watering hole. You see the shirts on surfers and swimmers all the time.

Now, the surfing in Wisconsin stinks. But that doesn't mean a Billabong shirt is out of place.

Szadkowski is a swimmer. He asked in jest if a shirt with "Potato" on it would be OK, since part of that word is "Pot."

It took a little while, but he and others eventually clarified this for Principal Ed Dombrowski, who lifted the ban.

And just for a laugh, the school's 143 seniors, led by class President Sarah Breen, recently voted unanimously to order Billabongs for everybody, in time for graduation. That includes shirts for the school district's employees as well.

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A few days ago, Billabong USA shipped 180 shirts to Winneconne's Class of 2000--free of charge.

"Everybody is very happy about it," says the firm's marketing vice president, Graham Stapelberg. "It was a bit of concern at first, when that temporary ban was in place, but I must say it all turned out well."

Written on each shirt is a dictionary definition of a billabong.

That should teach those teachers a lesson.

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Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053. E-mail: mike.downey@latimes.com.

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