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A Dirty Dozen in Pink? Newport School's Crackdown on Boys Prompts Protest

March 24, 2004|Daniel Yi | Times Staff Writer

Call it pink pique.

A Newport Beach principal has provoked a fuss at his middle school by preventing a dozen boys from wearing pink outfits in a class photo.

The decision, which prompted hundreds of angry students to wear pink in protest the following day, attracted national attention this week when television and radio personality Ryan Seacrest urged his fans to support the students by wearing pink Friday.

Ensign Middle School Principal Edward Wong did not return calls requesting comment, but a Newport Mesa Unified School District official said Wong's decision was warranted.

"It wasn't about a color; it was about a look," said Jane Garland, an assistant superintendent. "They were wearing pink shirts, pink wristbands, black shoes with pink shoelaces ... it was a costume."

School officials are not accusing the boys of belonging to a gang, but they note that bright colors are often favored by "party crews" -- youngsters who challenge others to impromptu dance competitions at parties. And, Garland said, "party crews are known to lead to gangs, and [dressing in such a way] is inappropriate behavior."

The controversy, first reported last week by the Orange County Register, began Thursday when Ensign's nearly 600 eighth-graders gathered for a class picture. Some students were standing together dressed in pink. Wong told them they had to shed their colors.

About half of them complied, Garland said, but others walked out. They were followed by several sympathetic students who were not wearing pink.

On Tuesday, several of the boys who wore pink that day said they do not belong to gangs or party crews. They said they are simply friends who often dress alike for fun.

"We just wanted to stand out," Edward Pinon, 13, said as he left school Tuesday. "So we wore pink because we wanted to look cool for the school picture."

Some parents said the principal overreacted.

"It's probably blown out of proportion," said Joan Cotham, whose son Justin is a seventh-grader. "If they had evidence that it was gang-related, I could see [the principal's] point of view. I don't know if they have any evidence."

But others endorsed the view of school officials.

Christian Whitney, mother of an eighth-grader at Ensign, said Wong's reaction reflects the reality in many schools where gang activity is a serious concern.

"If I saw six Latino kids all dressed in pink ... I am not sure I would not have thought the same thing," said Whitney, 38. "I would prefer to err on the side of caution."

But most students were defiant, calling the incident the result of prejudice.

"They got judged" because of the way they were dressed, said Theresa Sanchez, an eighth-grader who wore a pink ribbon during the Friday protest. "In many years, when they look back at their class picture, people will say, 'How come you are not in the photo?' and they will have to say, 'They assumed I was in a gang' -- and that's not fair."

Classmates Travis Sorensen and Logan Pulizzi, both 14, said school officials were applying a double standard based on ethnicity.

All but one of the boys wearing pink for the class photo are Latino, students said. But Logan and Travis -- who are non-Latino whites -- also decided to wear similar outfits for the class picture. They wore jeans and black T-shirts and stood together, but were not singled out by the principal, they said.

"I think it was stupid" to pull the other kids out, Logan said. "They were doing the same thing we were doing."

School officials said they were not applying the rules arbitrarily. They had good reason to see a threat in the boys' bright apparel, Garland said.

"If everyone one day showed up dressed in kilts and we knew they did not represent anything [gang-related], that would probably be OK," she said.

The incident illustrates how narrow a line school administrators must walk every day, Garland said. In an age when nail clippers can be classified as a weapon, it is hard to strike a balance between common sense and caution.

"We are not saying that we can't be wrong," Garland said, "but schools are often criticized for not responding to things they see. In this case, we responded."

*

Times staff writers Regine Labossiere and Kevin Pang contributed to this report.

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