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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

School officials decide not to censor student shirts commemorating late classmate

Officials in one Michigan school district have reversed their decision forbidding students to wear T-shirts honoring a classmate who recently died of leukemia. School administrators originally had told the students that they could not wear the shirts because of the emotional impact--the shirts might have exacerbated the grief felt by some students. But, students and parents complained, and the school district acquiesced.

The article begins:

A southern Michigan school district has reversed its decision to bar students from wearing T-shirts honoring a 12-year-old classmate who died over the weekend following a long battle with cancer.


At least a dozen students showed up to Lakeview Middle School in Battle Creek on Monday wearing blue or orange T-shirts to honor sixth-grader Caitlyn Jackson, who died Saturday after fighting leukemia for years, the Battle Creek Enquirer reported[]. Blue was Caitlyn's favorite color and orange is worn to honor those like her with leukemia, and some of the shirts were from various benefits for Caitlyn over the years.


When students arrived at school, administrators asked them to change out of the shirts, turn them inside-out or tape over Caitlyn's name.

Notably, district officials originally justified the prohibition under measures created to deal with crises. As the Associated Press reports:

[The school's finance director] said the district decided Sunday to not allow the T-shirts in keeping with its crisis management plan, which bars permanent memorials on the belief that they can remind students of their grief and make it worse. Parents weren't informed of the decision.

I doubt that student-made T-shirts qualify as "permanent memorials" (although a more pointed definition of the terms might be necessary), and I question the virtue of the district's policy.

Schools not only teach intellectual skills, but they also serve to socialize students for future integration into society and the workforce. Dealing with grief and loss are necessary components of that socialization process.

Further, emotionally trying experiences often are not private matters. Many people will have to deal with the loss of a co-worker or a classmate. Natural disasters often disrupt whole communities; and, as the 9-11 attacks demonstrated, the pain and trauma of a single event can significantly impact entire regions, even the country.

After completing primary and secondary school, students hopefully have developed the intellectual and emotional skills to manage their future education and/or careers even in difficult circumstances. I find it difficult to believe that ignoring grief is the best way to prepare students for that eventuality.

Moreover, the administrator's ban on the shirts likely violated the First Amendment speech rights of the students who wore them. Some students certainly feel grief due to the death of a classmate, but the T-shirts probably do not detract from their educational experiences.

Sorrowful students will continue to feel the attendant pain of losing a friend. But, the now-empty desk creates that sadness. Not the T-shirts.

 

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/civil_rights/2013/11/school-officials-decide-not-to-censor-student-shirts-commemorating-late-classmate.html

First Amendment, Freedom of Speech, Schools | Permalink

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