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Simi Bans Iron Cross Emblems

School district officials prohibit clothing bearing a design similar to that of a Nazi medal.

March 02, 2004|Gregory W. Griggs and Lynne Barnes | Times Staff Writers

Simi Valley school officials have instituted a ban on any clothing or jewelry that depicts an Iron Cross, a recognizable symbol of Nazi Germany that is similar to a popular design used by skateboard and clothing manufacturers.

School officials said the ban was prompted by recommendations from the Simi Valley Police Department, which considers the Iron Cross to be a gang symbol. The district's dress code states that "no article of clothing related to a group or gang which may provoke others to acts of violence ... shall be worn on campus."

"The wearing of any clothing, jewelry, belts, etc., which contain representations of an Iron Cross, or any image that is likely to be interpreted as an Iron Cross, will no longer be permitted," Don Gaudioso, the school district's director of secondary education, wrote in a letter mailed to 13,000 parents last week. The letter was written in both English and Spanish.

School officials said the primary image being targeted is the Iron Cross, which in recent years has become a popular symbol used by skateboard and clothing manufacturers, such as No Fear and West Coast Choppers. They also plan to prohibit brightly colored work boots or those with brightly colored laces, which are also thought to be favored by white supremacists.

In his letter to parents, Gaudioso stated that "a small but growing number of youth in our city have loosely banded together with the stated purpose of supporting a 'white power/white pride' movement. The actions these youth have been demonstrating have created great friction with other groups."

But in an interview Monday, Gaudioso said the district estimates that no more than a few dozen teenagers in the 22,000-student school district consider themselves part of the "white power/white pride movement."

"I don't want to give the impression that we think this is a large movement going on," he said. "We're trying to be proactive. We really haven't had any problem except for one fight between two boys."

Gaudioso was referring to an altercation that occurred between two Simi Valley High School students -- one white, one black -- in early January. Since then, he said, administrators at the district's other high school campuses noticed increased tensions between some students and wanted to warn parents that pupils who wear certain clothing or jewelry may inadvertently be considered white-power supporters, which "could possibly lead to unsafe conditions on campus."

Simi Valley Police Sgt. Roy Jones, who works with the department's gang unit and three school resource officers, said there was no reason for parents to be alarmed.

He said the one isolated incident on the Simi High campus started a series of rumors about retaliation from out-of-town gang members that never materialized.

"What happened here was that the parties made a couple of statements that caused this to grow to the point where parents became concerned," Jones said. "I have no fears that there will be widespread racial violence on campus. I have no problems sending my kids to the Simi Valley school district."

School board member Greg Stratton said the district was simply trying to head off any potential problems in taking action on the Iron Cross issue.

"We're just trying to raise some awareness with the parents about what's floating around out there," he said. "Kids are notorious for this, they grab onto symbols. And it's hard to separate the wheat from the chaff if kids ... are just wearing it because it's cool."

Jan Britz, principal of the 2,650-student Simi Valley High School, said fewer than 20 kids had been confronted about wearing clothing that might be considered offensive to others. But she said the district's policy is zero tolerance.

"Our primary goal is to keep our schools safe," she said. "Any time you see symbols that are hate symbols in any way ... you want to be proactive."

Gennady Shtern, director of the San Fernando Valley-based office of the Anti-Defamation League, which monitors hate activity in the Simi and Conejo valleys, said white supremacists are known to target middle schools and high schools to spread their message of bigotry.

"This has been an ongoing problem, and we commend the Simi Valley school district for taking action on this issue," Shtern said.

Meanwhile, a representative for No Fear, a San Diego County-based clothing manufacturer that features a similar cross on its apparel, issued a statement defending its use. It said the cross used by No Fear was derived from the Maltese Cross, an ancient symbol of protection and honor dating back nine centuries.

"We use it because it is a tough, aggressive graphic. Nothing more, nothing less," according to the company's statement. "It looks cool on a T-shirt or a jacket and kids like it. It in no way is used as a graphic that is affiliated with Nazis or anything else negative."

Erik Casillas, art director for No Fear, said the statement was issued in response to a San Diego school district's decision to impose a similar ban of the company's shirts and hats last year.

Despite such policies, he said that kids would continue to wear what they want. "We discovered that banning something from a kid is like trying to scare ants away from a picnic by spreading sugar on the ground." he said.

Charles Weis, Ventura County superintendent of schools, said he was unaware of any other local districts that have banned the Iron Cross.

He also said there was no evidence to suggest racial tensions were any worse in Simi Valley than elsewhere in the county. But he said that stepped up enforcement of dress-code policies provides another argument in support of school uniforms.

"Whatever dress code schools come up with, people who want to affiliate come up with a way around it," Weis said. "It just seems that we could simplify kids' lives if we said, 'Here's the uniform.' "

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