This is the headline that is all over the local news and airwaves right now:
But that is only part of the story. This week, five students at Live Oak High School in Morgan Hill, California decided to wear every bit of clothing they had with the American flag on it - shirts, shorts, shoes and bandannas. The day they chose to wear these outfits was also Cinco de Mayo.
The students were told by school officials that they had to turn their shirts inside out. If they refused they would be suspended. They refused.
The incident is being touted as an attempt by the administration (one of whom newscasters have made sure to emphasize has a Latino sounding name) to punish the students for their "patriotism." The suspension is considered unfair because they "had no choice" since they determined that turning a t-shirt inside out that had an artistic interpretation of the American flag on it or one branded with a low-price clothing company was "disrespectful."
Here's the thing, I grew up in the town next to Morgan Hill. I also went to the public high school. This issue is about more than just who wears what shirt with which flag on which day.
One person wearing an American flag t-shirt is patriotic. Five people wearing American flag shirts, shorts, shoes and bandannas on a day set aside to celebrate the cultural heritage of another group is intentionally inflammatory. And the administration knows that. And I'm guessing the newscasters do to.
Clothing is not simply a way to cover yourself, it is a complex system of signs. In this area of California and many others, that system is heightened and members of the community are particularly aware of it because many of those signs are intended to reflect which which gang you belong to - or would like to belong.
That is why the California Education Code provides for schools to establish a dress code in an attempt to limit gang activity in particular:
The governing board of any school district may adopt or rescind a reasonable dress code policy that requires pupils to wear a schoolwide uniform or prohibits pupils from wearing "gang-related apparel" if the governing board of the school district approves a plan that may be initiated by an individual school's principal, staff, and parents and determines that the policy is necessary for the health and safety of the school environment. Individual schools may include the reasonable dress code policy as part of its schoolsafety plan, pursuant to Section 32281.Here's the relevant part of section 32281:
The provisions of any schoolwide dress code, pursuant to Section 35183, that prohibits pupils from wearing "gang-related apparel," if the school has adopted that type of a dress code. For those purposes, the comprehensive school safety plan shall define "gang-related apparel." The definition shall be limited to apparel that, if worn or displayed on a school campus, reasonably could be determined to threaten the health and safety of the school environment. Any schoolwide dress code established pursuant to this section and Section 35183 shall be enforced on the school campus and at any school-sponsored activity by the principal of the school or the person designated by the principal. For the purposes of this paragraph, "gang-related apparel" shall not be considered a protected form of speech pursuant to Section 48950.
Now, I was never one to blindly support my school district's decisions when it came to dress codes and disciplinary action.* The code of conduct and dress code - Live Oak's is not publicly available on the district's site - often seemed arbitrary and targeted Latino students more than others.
However, I do believe these types of restrictions are necessary for the "health and safety" of students. They certainly won't solve the problem of gang violence on campus (we had a very strict anti-gang dress code and multiple other measures, but we still had violence and a gang-related death at my high school), but they are a step towards lessening it. The problem with the current code is that it is limited to a certain demographic of students - students who in this area are Latino. And here is where the problem with this incident lies. The school has to outline what qualifies as "gang-related apparel" or clothing that will affect the "health and safety" of students before it can enforce the code. I'm going to guess that while Live Oak's dress code includes specific types of red and blue clothing, it does not include clothing that combines the two.
By attaching the administration's ability to intervene based on what students are wearing to gang activity, they are limited in their ability to address the other ways clothing can be used to negatively affect the "health and safety" of students. In this instance, the students were not part of a gang (though they fulfilled two of the three parameters for the California definition of one), but their actions were intentionally meant to (in the best case) intimidate their fellow students and (in the worst case) incite hostility within the student body. And guess what? They succeeded.
We are at a point in our history where "patriotism" is being defined by whoever is doing the speaking, and it is more and more being hijacked to mean xenophobia and nationalism. That was no more evident this last week as Arizona enacted prejudiced and dangerous laws to a background of birthers and teapartiers and their definition of "patriotism." So attempting to enforce your limited definition of patriotism and what it means to be an American on a day set aside to celebrate the cultural background of members of your community, isn't an innocent display of love for one's country.
The argument that the students' decision to wear clothing dripping in American flags could not have been intended to be intimidating or prejudiced because one of the students is part Mexican is also shakey. Yes, it certainly muddies the situation, but in this community, like many others, self-identification isn't based on a simple binary standard. Individual members chose to identify themselves through any number of descriptors: Mexican, Mexican-American, Latino/a, Chicano/a, Hispanic, White, Caucasian, and yes simply American. But these are not necessarily based on their lineage. The decision to identify oneself includes many personal decisions about how you want to identify not only your ethnicity, but your citizenship, class and membership within or outside of a particular community.
In this case, the students insistence to define themselves as members of a specific community based on their clothing was also an attempt to define who is not a part of their chosen community.
*And those of us who called the ACLU when we thought the dress code was discriminatory against tall girls...that would be me...