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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

ACLU cautions Pasco's Ridgewood High School over dress code threat



A Ridgewood High School administrator's threat of arrest for a student planning a dress code protest has brought a stern rebuke from the ACLU, which offered in turn a threat of its own.

"Civil-rights lawsuits in federal court are an expensive and often-unnecessary means of resolving disputes over whether a school can use its disciplinary powers to silence criticisms of school rules and policies," Jennifer Morley, president of the Greater Tampa Chapter of the ACLU of Florida, wrote in a letter to school and district officials.

"We remind the school that federal law provides for awards of attorney's fees to successful civil-rights litigants," Morley continued. "Should the school punish Mr. Banaciski for his off-campus speech, and should he challenge the punishment in court on First Amendment grounds and prevail, this could result in a substantial attorney-fee award against the school district."

In her letter, Morley suggests that the school is on weak legal footing with its threat to arrest Ridgewood senior Hunter Banaciski for encouraging schoolmates to participate in a peaceful protest against new dress code rules. She posited that the notion he was inciting a riot, as some officials suggested, flew in the face of reason.

She praised the students' plan questioning the merit of the new rules as a "brilliant tactical move" designed to show the flaws in the school's action, and suggests the administration reconsider: 

The protest contemplated by the students - wearing clothing to school that was formerly permitted under a prior dress code but otherwise going about their normal days - does not, itself, disrupt the operation of the school, and it is miles from encouraging "rioting." Instead, it seems that students mean to prove their point by maneuvering the administration into a predicament wherein it must either: (1) disrupt its own activities by disciplining an impracticable number of students simultaneously (hence proving the students' point that enforcement of the policy is more disruptive to their educations than having a less-restrictive policy would be); or (2) declining to punish the students who violate the modified dress code, thereby implicitly conceding the students' point that enforcing the policy is more disruptive than disregarding it.

While we express no opinion in this letter as to the constitutionality of the dress code itself, we commend the students' brilliant tactical move and ask you to consider whether their concerns have merit. And we would be remiss not to credit the school district, as well; someone has done an excellent job of educating these children on how to speak truth to power.

Read the ACLU 6-page letter for its complete position. Your thoughts?

[Last modified: Tuesday, October 25, 2016 6:56am]


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