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Wearing their heart, and more, on their wrist

SPRING HILL — Sean Moffit appreciates the female form as much as the next 15-year-old male. But the slogan around his wrist, he says, is all about cancer awareness.

Moffit likes to sport a purple and black bracelet stamped with the phrase "I ♥ boobies!" It's the slogan for the Keep a Breast Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in California that aims to educate young people about methods of cancer prevention, early detection and support, according to its mission statement.

Moffit, whose family has lost relatives to other forms of cancer, said he had been wearing the bracelet to school all year, and many other students wear them, too.

"Everybody's so used to it," Moffit said. "They're everywhere."

So he was surprised earlier this month when a Springstead High School staffer told him to remove the bracelet because it violated the dress code. His reaction to the request would ultimately get him suspended.

The incident made Hernando County one of the latest fronts in an ongoing nationwide clash between students and school officials who contend the word "boobies" — even in the context of cancer awareness — is inappropriate in schools.

The battle in at least two cases has moved out of principals' offices and into courtrooms.

• • •

Moffit took the bracelet off March 8 when a paraprofessional told him to, but then put it back on, turned inside out, so that the foundation's website showed on the outside. The same staffer saw the bracelet around Moffit's wrist later and sent him to an assistant principal's office.

Moffit asked to see the rule that would apply to the bracelet, but no one would show him, he said. He told administrators to call his mother, Donna, who also questioned why the bracelet was a problem.

"It wasn't a big deal until last week," Donna Moffit said.

Springstead principal Susan Duval emphasized that Moffit was given one day of in-school suspension for defying a staffer and being disrespectful, not for wearing the bracelet.

"We always ask our kids to follow the directions of the adult, and if you disagree with something, come see (administrators), and let's work it out," Duval told the Tampa Bay Times. "It's a life lesson."

The bracelet does break the rules, Duval said. She pointed to a section of the school's dress code prohibiting "any type of clothing, jewelry, accessories or manner of grooming . .. (that) advocates drugs, tobacco products, alcohol, violence, or has sexual innuendo, inappropriate messages, logos, double meanings, prejudices or would cause disruption."

The school's code differs slightly from the boilerplate policy in the district's student code of conduct. The district policy includes the phrase "sexual innuendo" but not "double meanings." Both of those phrases could apply to the bracelet, Duval said.

By midweek, however, she had learned more about the foundation and decided that the bracelets will be allowed, though staffers will tell students to remove them if they are causing a disruption.

The leeway only goes so far, though.

"What I would have a problem with," Duval said, "is a T-shirt emblazoned with that across the front."

Superintendent Bryan Blavatt said he supported Duval's interpretation of her school's specific dress code. The bracelet is okay in schools that follow the boilerplate dress code, but staffers can still act if students are causing a distraction, Blavatt said. He said he hadn't heard of problems at other schools.

"So long as it's not creating a material disruption, then my directive to the schools is (students) should be able to express their views, and this is a legitimate social organization," Blavatt said.

• • •

Other high school principals in Hernando County said they haven't had discipline issues related to the bracelet and don't object to them if students are mature about it. Sure, some are likely wearing the accessory for the double meaning, said Central High principal Joe Clifford.

"I'm going to make an assumption the kids are wearing it for an appropriate reason," Clifford said. "Do I think that's the most appropriate way to show your support? No, I don't, but I have more important things to focus on."

Administrators have banned the bracelet — or tried to — in school districts from California to Pennsylvania. A Plant City student was suspended in 2010 for refusing to hand over his bracelet. Spokeswomen in Pasco and Pinellas said last week that the bracelets haven't caused problems in those districts.

Last year, a federal judge in Philadelphia ruled that punishing two middle school students for wearing the bracelets constituted a violation of the students' free speech. The girls, ages 12 and 13, had been wearing the bracelets since the beginning of the school year when school officials made the decision to ban them, asserting that the slogan was a lewd double entendre, according to media reports.

Both girls were suspended for a day and a half for wearing the bracelets to school on Breast Cancer Awareness Day.

"The bracelets are intended to be and they can reasonably be viewed as speech designed to raise awareness of breast cancer and to reduce the stigma associated with openly discussing breast health," U.S. District Judge Mary A. McLaughlin wrote.

Her order prohibits the district from "suspending, threatening to suspend, or otherwise punishing or disciplining the plaintiffs from wearing the bracelets." The school district is appealing.

Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in federal court against an Indiana school district on behalf of a middle school student who was threatened with expulsion for wearing a similar bracelet with the same phrase. Sales of those bracelets, which are not affiliated with Keep a Breast Foundation, help support the work of the Carol M. Baldwin Breast Cancer Research Fund.

Shaney Jo Darden and Mona Mukherjea-Gehrig started the Keep a Breast Foundation (keep-a-breast.org) in 2000. The women never envisioned federal court cases when they started selling the bracelets in 2005, said Kimmy McAtee, vice president of public relations and marketing. They just wanted a catch phrase that would resonate with youth more than a pink ribbon.

It worked. About 10 million of the $3.99 bracelets have been sold, with net proceeds going to the foundation. The organization has a staff of 16 and uses roughly 13 percent of its income to cover overhead, McAtee said.

She said students who are told by school officials to take off the bracelets should use the diplomatic approach Duval advocates.

"Don't be rude, but tell them why you wear it and what it's for," she said. "Students come back and say, 'This is a foundation that resonates with me,' and a lot of schools have released the ban."

Times news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@tampabay.com.

Wearing their heart, and more, on their wrist 03/17/12 [Last modified: Saturday, March 17, 2012 1:22pm]

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