Eighth-Grader Suspended for T-Shirt Honoring Dead Soldiers

The rifle on the shirt allegedly violated a ban on clothing that promotes violence.



What happens when mindless zero-tolerance policies are pitted against support-the-troops patriotism? At Dexter McCarty Middle School in Gresham, Oregon, zero tolerance wins. The Washington Post reports that the school recently suspended eighth-grader Alan Holmes, whose brother served with the Marines in Iraq, for wearing a T-shirt that says "Standing for Those Who Stood for Us" against the backdrop of an American flag. The problem: Fallen soldiers are represented by an empty pair of boots, one of them with a rifle capped by a helmet protruding from it. The shirt, part of the Jeff Foxworthy line of "Vintage Redneck Wear," violated a school ban on clothing promoting alcohol, tobacco, drugs, or violence.

Or so the school's assistant principal, Amy Nimz, thought, and the principal, John George, agreed. When Alan refused to take off the shirt, the school called his father to take him home. "They won't let me wear a shirt that supports the people that keep us free," Alan told KPTV, the Fox station in Portland. "I was nervous and kind of heartbroken, because I feel like I should be able to support the troops who have died for us." His father, Charles Holmes, agreed, saying, "I would have done the same thing." School officials would not comment on the case, KPTV says, but they did say "they believe that weapons on a shirt are inappropriate for a school setting." 

A staff member at Canyon High School in Anaheim Hills, California, had a similar idea in 2013, when he or she ordered sophomore Haley Bullwinkle to change out of a National Rifle Association T-shirt that depicted a hunter with a rifle. After the NRA contacted the Orange County School District, Superintendent Michael Christensen offered an "unconditional apology," saying "the shirt logo does not promote violence."

Deer might disagree, but you get the idea: The shirt did not promote the sort of violence that inspired the clothing restrictions. Likewise the T-shirt honoring dead soldiers, although Alan Holmes' contention that the war in Iraq had anything to do with defending Americans' freedom surely is open to question.

Whether or not school officials agreed with the opinions expressed by those students' shirts, Supreme Court precedent suggests they had a First Amendment right to express them. In the 1969 case Tinker v. Des Moines School District, the Supreme Court upheld the First Amendment right of high school students to wear black arm bands in protest of the Vietnam War. More recently, in the 2007 case Morse v. Frederick, the Court said a student could be punished for displaying a banner saying "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" at an off-campus event. But the rationale in the latter case was that the banner promoted illegal drug use. 

I will update this post with the school district's seemingly inevitable apology if and when it is issued.

[Thanks to CharlesWT for the tip.]