The Devil Wears Winnie-the-Pooh? ACLU Suit Charges Napa Middle School Dress Code Goes Too Far
Sensible expression of ideas and fashion not a safety issue. State law says schools with uniform policies must allow parents to opt out.
Napa, CA — March 19, 2007 — Last year, 7th-grader Toni Kay Scott was sent to the principal’s office not because of a revealing see-through top, spiked collar or platform heels -- but because her socks featured a picture of the Winnie-the-Pooh character Tigger.
Toni Kay was in violation of Redwood Middle School’s “Appropriate Attire Policy” which only allows solid-color clothes in blue, white, green, yellow, khaki, gray, brown and black. No jeans. Everything must be cotton twill, chino or corduroy. And no pictures, logos, words, or patterns of any kind, including stripes and flowers. Tigger didn’t have a chance.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California filed suit today in Napa Superior Court seeking judicial relief from an unconstitutionally vague, overbroad and restrictive dress code enforced by Redwood Middle School and the Napa Valley Unified School District. The suit alleges students are denied the ability to express political, religious, humorous and literary messages on their clothes or backpacks.
While California law allows schools to establish “reasonable dress code policies” to address safety concerns, they must be supported by real safety needs. The suit alleges Redwood Middle School’s policy overreaches by forcing an aesthetic conformity in the name of safety. “This code is so restrictive that it is basically a uniform, leaving no room for self-expression,” says Sharon L. O’Grady, an attorney at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP. She explains that school uniform policies must allow parents to exempt their children from compliance, which has not been an option at Redwood Middle School. “They are enforcing a ‘school uniform’ under the guise of a ‘dress code’ and that’s in violation of the California Education Code,” says O’Grady, who is representing the plaintiff, along with the ACLU-NC.
Toni Kay’s younger sister, 6th-grader Sydni Scott, was cited for wearing a T-shirt with a pro-Christian message worn by her youth group at Napa’s Grace Baptist Church. The shirt had the words “Jesus Freak” on front and the Bible scripture “Galatians 4:18” on back. Toni Kay got the attention of school administrators again when she wore a “D.A.R.E.” drug prevention shirt, which contained words and the color red – two things the school does not allow.
“Kids who want to say their opinions or ideas aren’t hurting anyone,” says Toni Kay, 14. “We should be able to show everyone who we are and have a way to express ourselves, as long as we aren’t showing off things that shouldn’t be shown off at school.”
Toni Kay and Sydni’s mother, Donnell Scott, says the school has gone beyond reason in its attempt to protect the students. “I agree; no midriffs, mini-skirts or cleavage. School is a place to learn. But anything above that should be my call as a parent. Pink socks and two-tones are not a crime. That’s just nitpicking.”
The ACLU of Northern California brought the suit because the right to free speech does not end with students. “The United States Supreme Court has long held that students do not shed their constitutional rights of freedom of speech and expression at the schoolhouse gate,” says ACLU-NC staff attorney Julia Harumi Mass.
The suit is a joint effort by the ACLU of Northern California and cooperating attorneys from San Francisco law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP.