Freedom to a T!

Shirt doesn’t hold a thread of hate. Board needs to get back to business.

By the editors

Express-Times, April 2, 2001

The Warren Hills Regional School Board will set aside students’ academic achievement, discipline, the district’s budget and who knows what other high-priority matters Tuesday for something of vital importance: What one kid wears to class.

Board members will hear- in secret session – a committee’s report about a “redneck” T-shirt worn by senior Tom Sypniewski. The shirt, a take-off on comedian Jeff Foxworthy’s routine about the Top 10 reasons someone might be a redneck sports fan, offended some administrators. They suspended Sypniewski for violating the district’s dress code. The teen-ager appealed the suspension, which led to the committee meeting – again, closed to the public-and it’s on to Tuesday’s scheduled decision.

The board should overrule administrators on this one. The T-shirt in question isn’t even borderline hateful.

Granted, it’s been a rough year for questionable dress and free speech at Warren Hills. Last month the board acted correctly in adopting a racial harassment and intimidation policy. It was prompted by a few students who paraded a Confederate flag through the halls, told racially offensive jokes or organized a theme day called “White Wednesdays.”

Every student and every parent presumably got the message: The district will not tolerate displays of bigotry. Sypniewski did, too, even after a friend was suspended for wearing a T-shirt with a Confederate flag. He never thought his T-shirt would be deemed inappropriate. He had worn it to school before, and his younger brother’s redneck T-shirt had survived the middle school Dress Police. Further, no one had complained to school officials about his shirt.

Common sense should prevail. The school district should enforce a dress code that promotes order and discourages distraction. That includes banning inappropriately revealing or sloppy garb. This T-shirt doesn’t qualify.

All districts have faced this dress-code battle, but there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Last week, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that students in the Penn-Delco School District will have to adapt to a “business casual” clothing mandate – shirts with raised collars, slacks or blue jeans, etc.

Instead of dealing with one student’s choice of clothes, everyone at Warren Hills – from school employees to parents – should be more concerned about what is being taught. Dressing up the education environment in Warren Hills and others districts extends beyond the clothes on students’ backs.

Turn this around, and the T-shirt might not be as anti-educational as initially thought. Warren Hills teachers could use it as a springboard to teach about rednecks. While the dictionary refers to the slang usage of redneck as a poor, white, rural Southerner – often considered ignorant, bigoted or violent – there’s another, literal meaning – the sunburned neck acquired by farm laborers in the field.

Clothing that exhibits overt hatred must be banned, but this piece of fabric doesn’t hold a thread of hate.