2 students ousted for offensive T-shirts

Warren Hills moves to confront racism

By Jeff Diamant and Susan Todd

Star-Ledger, March 23, 2001

Officials at Warren Hills Regional High School suspended two students this week for wearing T-shirts with words or symbols that administrators deemed racist or offensive.

A senior was suspended yesterday for wearing, and refusing to take off, a shirt with the word “redneck” on it. On Wednesday, a sophomore was suspended for wearing a shirt that had a small Confederate battle flag, school officials said.

Earlier this month, the school board passed a policy that forbids students from “wearing or (possessing) items depicting or implying racial hatred or prejudice.”

The high school, in the heart of Washington Township in Warren County, has 1,200 students. About 5 percent of them are minorities.

Only the sophomore was suspended under the new policy, said Superintendent Peter Merluzzi.

The senior was suspended for violating a long-standing district policy that bans offensive or vulgar messages on T-shirts, he said.

The sophomore, 16-year-old Vinnie Nanarone, was among a small group of students who originally prompted discussion of the clothing ban last fall after he was suspended for reading racial jokes to other students and displaying a Confederate flag in school.

Yesterday, Nanarone said he had gone to school on Wednesday wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a 3-inch Confederate battle flag and the word “redneck” under a sweater. During the school day, he took the sweater off and covered the flag with duct tape, he said.

But school officials said the cover-up wasn’t enough.

“He attempted to cover it up, but it was there and the policy says you’re not supposed to have it,” Merluzzi said.

Nanarone, suspended for three days, said, “I don’t think I should have been suspended. I wasn’t sporting (the flag).”

He said the high school’s assistant principal told him that despite the duct tape, it was still apparent he was wearing a shirt with the Confederate flag on it, which officials specifically prohibited in the new policy. Assistant Principal Ronald Griffith also told him the word “redneck” was offensive, Nanarone said.

“I think because I was the first person to come under this ban, he wanted to show the. other kids what was going to happen,” Nanarone said.

Students who violate the new policy are subject to three-day suspensions for their first violation. A second violation leads to a three-to five-day suspension with the possibility of expulsion. Expulsion is a stronger possibility for a third violation.

But Nanarone said his suspension wouldn’t stop him from wearing shirts with “redneck” printed on them. “It doesn’t mean racism,” he said.

Senior Tom Sypniewski, 18, said his suspension was due to his T-shirt bearing the words “redneck sports fan.”

The shirt, which is designed with lines from comedian Jeff Foxworthy’s acts, shows a white man with blue jeans and “10 reasons why you might be a redneck sports fan.” Sypniewski said he bought the shirt at Wal-Mart.

Merluzzi said that under the district’s long-standing policy, students wearing offensive or vulgar T-shirts are asked to remove the clothes. If they comply, they are not disciplined. Merluzzi said he considers the word “redneck” offensive under the school’s policy.

“Redneck, if you read it in the dictionary, it says, ‘violent, bigoted person,'” he said.

Sypniewski criticized both suspensions, saying neither shirt contained anything racially offensive. “How is saying ‘redneck’ offensive to anybody?” Sypniewski asked.

He said he plans to appeal the suspension and attend school today.