ACLU intervened on behalf of student sent home for breaking rule that did not exist

The ACLU of Virginia has received assurances from Danville Public Schools that any mention of a two-day suspension given to tenth grade student Adam Canha for wearing “Columbine attire” to school will be removed from his school records.
Canha was suspended after he wore a trench coat to school on September 15. Canha removed the coat at the request of an assistant principal, but was at lunch and did not immediately take it to his locker, where the assistant principal asked him to place it. This led to a search of Canha’s belongings and a two day suspension from school.
According to school records, Canha was suspended for violating section 3-13 of the Student Code of Conduct, which prohibits intimidating or threatening behavior by a student. But the only explanation offered by the school was that he was wearing Columbine attire. The ACLU of Virginia asked that Canha’s record be purged of the incident and the school issue assurances that students will not be punished for violations of dress rules that do not exist.
In a letter to the ACLU, dated September 29, Danville Public School’s legal counsel Michael J. Newman wrote that the “labeling of the event was unfortunate and inaccurate,” that Canha “did not violate section 3-13,” and that “any mention of this incident” in Canha’s school records would be “purged.”
“Rights are not rights at all if they can be taken away arbitrarily or on a whim,” said ACLU of Virginia executive director Kent Willis. “Adam Canha was not breaking any rule when he wore his trench coat to school, but he ended up being searched and suspended because his attire made one school official feel uneasy. Imagine if government officials had the power to make up rules every time they felt uneasy about something.”
Although the school will clean up Canha’s record, it maintains that, under the circumstances, the search of Canha’s belongings was reasonable and that the suspension may also have been justified. The ACLU disagrees with this assessment of the events.
Newman’s letter states that even when students violate the dress code, they cannot be suspended, since dress code offenses are not punishable by suspension. However, the letter also states that students must remove “disruptive” clothing they wear to school, and may be suspended if they refuse. There was no indication that Canha’s clothing caused a disruption.
A copy of Newman’s letter is available by fax. Requests for a copy may be made by calling the ACLU or by sending an email request to

Contact: Kent Willis, Executive Director, ACLU of Virginia, 804-644-8022