School board defends suspension of student who wore 'redneck' shirt

By Jeff Diamant

Star-Ledger, April 21, 2001

The Warren Hills Regional Board of Education has upheld the three-day suspension of high school senior who was suspended last month for wearing, and refusing to take off, a shirt with the words “redneck sports fan” on it.

The student, Tom Sypniewski, had appealed his March 22 suspension. Sypniewski’s father declined to comment yesterday on the school board’s action denying his son’s appeal.

The suspension came a few weeks after the school board passed a controversial policy that forbids students from “wearing or (possessing) items depicting or implying racial hatred or prejudice.”

Although Sypniewski wasn’t suspended under the new policy, school officials said he violated the district’s long-standing policy that students not wear vulgar or offensive T-shirts. Superintendent Peter Merluzzi said he considered the word “redneck” offensive under the school’s policy.

Sypniewski said 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.”

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

In a statement announcing its decision on the appeal, the school board chronicled a year’s worth of events and tension at the high school that it said led to last month’s policy.

For example, in September, the board said, some white students wore Confederate battle flags on their T-shirts for “White Power Wednesdays.” In March, according to the board statement, two trucks parked at the school used a loudspeaker to amplify music with racist lyrics.

This week, racist writings were found on bathroom walls in the school.

“In a simpler time and age, the use of the term ‘redneck’ would not necessarily be offensive when utilized in a school setting,” the board’s statement said. “But where, as here, there is a history and background of racial intimidation and problems, this conduct will not be permitted.”