The records of 20 Palmerton Area High School students who had been reprimanded for wearing T-shirts critical of the school dress code have been cleared.
At the request of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, the district agreed on Monday to clear the disciplinary records of the students who wore "Property of PHS" T-shirts to class.
In addition, the district agreed to expunge the students' records, allow them to make up classroom assignments and quizzes missed because of the school's disciplinary action, and to wear the shirts in the future without fear of retaliation.
On Sept. 15, the day of a school board meeting, about 40 high school students wore to school white T-shirts with black stenciling that had each student's ID number and the words "Property of PHS," in protest of student dress code policies that prohibit body piercings and "nontypical" hair color.
High school Principal Kathy Egan then called the students into the cafeteria and gave them the option to change shirts, serve an in-school suspension, or leave school grounds and receive an unexcused absence and receive zeros for school work missed that day. Of those choices, 20 students took the option of in-school suspension or an unexcused absence.
After being contacted by several of the students and their parents, ACLU staff attorney Valerie Burch sent a letter to the district on Sept. 28 that informed them that disciplining the students for wearing T-shirts protesting the school dress code violated the students' First Amendment free speech rights. Burch then threatened legal action if the punishments were not lifted by Monday.
Burch announced the resolution on Tuesday.
"The ACLU of Pennsylvania is relieved that the school district's study of the First Amendment has led it to the correct conclusion: Nondisruptive political statements, whether the wearing of a "Property of PHS" T-shirt to protest a prohibition against blue hair dye or a black armband to protest the Vietnam War, are protected by the First Amendment, period," Burch said.
The decision was met with a favorable response from senior Brandon Mazepa, an organizer of the protest.
"I hope that whoever thinks young people today don't appreciate the meaning of living in a free country has learned a lesson from the students of Palmerton Area High School," Mazepa said.
Reached this morning, Superintendent Carol Boyce told the TIMES NEWS she believes there was a "misperception" over how the situation was handled by the district.
"The school never disciplined the kids; what we did was the kids who agreed to take their T-shirts off and put something else on, those kids went back to class, never missed a beat, and life went on as usual," Boyce said. "The kids who went home with parent permission did not receive credit for work that day that was due, and the kids that couldn't reach a parent, spent the day in our in-school suspension room for supervisory purposes. But it was not an in-school suspension, so they did not receive disciplinary punishment."
However, Boyce concurred that the district has, in fact, complied with the request of the ACLU.
"The district has agreed that youngsters who were absent that day due to the T-shirt circumstance will be given the opportunity to make up the work that they missed that day and will earn whatever credit it is that they earned for it," she said.
Efforts to reach Egan for comment in time for today's publication were unsuccessful.
Last month, visitors – many of whom were students – crammed the Parkside Education Center to address the board in defense of the students' decision to wear the T-shirts. Many of those who spoke were against the district's dress code, while a few adults said they supported it.
That meeting was held several weeks after four students attended a session of the school board's Curriculum, Athletics, Personnel, and Policy Committee, at which time they pleaded with members to consider changes to the policy.
At that time, Egan said those students who violated the policy were given the option to remove their piercings, and face in-school suspension or have their parents pick them up to take them home from school.
Further, Egan said each student received a letter with regard to the new policy, and, therefore, was made aware of the dress code.
That came after several high school and junior high school students were reprimanded by the district for also being in violation of the policy, which states that students are to "maintain certain standards of cleanliness and decency."
The policy also states that "shorts may be worn; however, they need to be in good taste and not the type that are typically worn for gym class. Also, clothing which advertises drugs and/or alcohol and clothing with any type of double meaning will not be permitted."
As for jewelry and other adornments, "earrings and body rings worn at locations other than the ears are not allowed. Specifically, those worn in the nose, eyebrow, tongue, cheek, or any other visible location beside the ears are not acceptable.
The piercing of body parts and the insertion of jewelry or other objects which result in bleeding, oozing of bodily fluids, or other physical condition which may reasonably pose a danger to the student or others is considered inappropriate and unacceptable."
In addition, there are to be "no chains worn other than those designed as a necklace or bracelet, accessories containing spikes of any sort shall not be permitted, and hair coloring of a fluorescent or nontypical color shall not be permitted."
Also, "accessories deemed to be distractive, disruptive, or offensive in nature are prohibited, adornments which tend to mar or damage school property or which can be used as a weapon are not allowed, nor are adornments that prevent the student from achieving his/her own educational objectives because of blocked vision or restricted movement."
The policy also states that students "may be required to wear certain types of clothing while participating in physical education classes, shops, labs, extra-curricular activities, or other situations where special attire may be required to ensure the health or safety of the student."