School officials at times must make a judgment call on whether an article of clothing represents a rules violation or simply a freedom of expression.

The Genoa-Kingston Middle School in Illinois recently made news after a reading and language arts teacher told a student to remove a U.S. Marines T-shirt that depicted intersecting rifles across the chest. Michael McIntyre, 13, was told by the teacher that his shirt was inappropriate and violated the school's dress code. The teacher reportedly said that if he didn't cover the shirt, he faced suspension.

The boy's father, Dan McIntyre, said his son immediately complied with the teacher's demand and that he learned about the incident when his son came home from school. He said the teacher reportedly went to the principal, but that nothing was said to his son.

An administrator at the school said teachers who are unsure whether an article of clothing violates the district policy are told to send the student to the principal, who then makes the final decision.

The father cited the school dress code that says students may not wear clothing that depicts "violent behavior." He felt the teacher misinterpreted the meaning of the crossed gun symbol. McIntyre is involved with the county's Marines organization and respectfully considers the soldiers "superheroes."

Superintendent Joe Burgess, who said administrators were not aware of the incident until informed by the media, admitted the T-shirt was not a violation but "a very common symbol for the U.S. Marines." He characterized the incident as "misunderstanding and miscommunication" and that the principal has spoken to both parties in question.

The school administration claims they are supportive of our military, regularly encouraging students and staff to write letters to the troops and attending patriotic ceremonies for veterans. The school decided not to speak to reporters directly, but a message on the school Facebook page stated:

"We very much support the armed forces and were disheartened to learn of this matter through the media. The administration and school handbook agree that this shirt is not a violation of the dress code. We also take school safety very earnestly and it needs to be recognized that is a topic that we also take very seriously and support our students and staff in providing a safe environment to learn, teach and work in on a daily basis."

Daniel McIntyre, however, said the incident proves that the district's code needed tweaking since it doesn't explicitly address images of firearms and therefore the policy can be loosely interpreted.

In Pennsylvania, school officials are allowed to set dress codes or require school uniforms, which has been an issue in a number of our local districts for years. The American Civil Liberties Union reports that a Handbook for Public School Students outlines the rights for students in Pennsylvania. The booklet does not offer legal advice but gives tips about how to handle certain situations and provides information on where to go for help.

The ACLU says a student can be prevented from wearing clothing with messages that are lewd, indecent, promote drug use, disrupt the educational process, or cause a health or safety risk. Parents and students are reminded to check their district's student handbook or the school web site for a rule interpretation. If you are not allowed to wear a T-Shirt or button to school because of its message, the ACLU can be contacted.

School personnel should know their school handbook and be aware of the subject and content before making a quick judgment. Illinois school officials didn't know they had a problem until one their policies was challenged because a teacher misinterpreted the meaning of a T-shirt that was actually supportive of our military.

By Jim Zbick

jzbick@tnonline.com [1]