My name is Nancy Sypniewski and I’m here today because of what has happened to my son and my family. I want to tell you about what we’ve been through.
My husband and I got involved in this incident when we appealed Tom’s suspension to the Warren Hills School Board. At the end of March, our family appeared before the school board, and Tom Jr. explained to them that he’d been wearing the Jeff Foxworthy T-shirt throughout the year and nobody ever complained. So he couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. And I agree. I don’t think the school has any right to make my son take his shirt off because the Vice Principal imagines someone might find it offensive.
But everything we told the board fell on deaf ears. They upheld the suspension, saying Tom Jr. had violated the dress code because the word “redneck” portrayed a message of racial stereotyping that could cause racial tension at the school. Why they think that is beyond me, and they sure didn’t explain their reasoning.
I’m not sure they’ve thought this through, because they’re not even consistent. One day Tom got suspended, with Superintendent Merluzzi’s approval, for wearing the T-shirt. Then literally the next day, our son Brian wore the same T-shirt to the Middle School. So the Vice Principal of the Middle School talked to Superintendent Merluzzi about Brian’s shirt. And Mr. Merluzzi decided the shirt wasn’t offensive and didn’t violate the dress code, even though he made the opposite decision the day before about the same shirt and the same dress code. How are my kids or any kids supposed to know what they can wear and what they can’t wear? Our lawyers tell us the confusing nature of the dress code is one of several reasons it’s unconstitutional.
Superintendent Merluzzi says that when he looks at the Jeff Foxworthy T-shirt, it says to him, “look at me, I’m white.” Well, he’s wrong. That shirt is not about being white or black. It’s about being a redneck. I don’t know if you know where the word “redneck” comes from, but it doesn’t come from anything racial. It comes long ago from farmers who worked long hours in a field with little or no pay and could be recognized by the burnt backs of their necks. They were good people and they helped to keep our country fed. Now the word “redneck” has expanded to include big trucks, country music, good clean fun, as well as hard work. But rednecks are still good people. They may think differently, but they have an ability to laugh at themselves, as my son’s T-shirt demonstrates. My son is a redneck and I guess you could say the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree. I’m proud of him – he’s a good boy. And I’m proud that, in this incident, he did what he had to do to stand up for what was right.
So you can bet I was pretty upset when the school board sent out a press release about their decision that called my son a racist – or at least said he was trying to portray a racist message with his shirt. What’s worse, the board faxed out its press release a couple of days before we got the board’s letter telling us that our appeal had been denied. We heard about the decision from reporters calling us before we even got the letter. Because of that press release, my family has been subjected to insults. For example, Tom Jr. got an anonymous letter in the mail that said “you stupid polack.” And people in our town have been accusing him of being a racist.
School officials haven’t handled Tom’s punishment very honorably either. They retaliated against my son for fighting his suspension by making him take 2 final exams he was supposed to be exempt from. Seniors don’t have to take exams in classes where their average is 93% or better, and Tom’s average was better than that in 2 classes. But they made him take the final exams anyway. And I think it was petty for the school to take away Tom’s parking privileges as part of the punishment. They know his brother Brian depends on him for a ride to the Middle School.
Some people have asked us why we’re willing to fight back against a school board that’s a lot more powerful then we are and has shown it’s willing to retaliate, especially since Tom has already graduated. Well, there are a couple of reasons we’re doing this. One is that our younger sons Brian and Matthew will still be in the Warren Hills school system for a few more years, and we want to make sure that what happened to Tom doesn’t happen to them. But we’re also fighting for an important principle. Everyone is getting too sensitive – even paranoid – these days, and it’s eating away at people’s right to free speech, which is protected by the Constitution. Warren Hills isn’t the only school where you can get suspended for wearing the wrong T-shirt, or drawing a picture of a gun, or expressing what some people might call a politically incorrect opinion. We hope that by bringing this lawsuit, we’ll help to protect the First Amendment and restore some sanity and balance to all our schools.
Finally, I just want to say that our family really appreciates all the people who have supported us through this tough situation, including a lot of strangers. Thank you.
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