September 27, 2004

Civil liberties group wants student’s records purged and dress rules clarified.

In a letter faxed Friday, the ACLU of Virginia warned George Washington High School principal Sherri Huffman that school officials may have violated a student’s due process rights by suspending him for violating a dress code rule that does not exist. The school may also have illegally searched the student. The ACLU is asking the school to purge the student’s records of any mention of the incident and to issue a written statement guaranteeing that no student will be punished for wearing clothing not prohibited by a duly adopted rule or policy.
The ACLU’s action is based on news reports from the Danville Register and Bee and interviews with Adam Canha, the tenth grader who received the suspension. Canha wore a trench coat to school on September 15, but was asked to place it in his locker by the assistant principal, who told Canha he was frightening other students with his Columbine-like apparel. There does not appear to be any rule against wearing trench coats to school.
Canha showed the assistant principal that he was not hiding anything in his coat and took it off. But he did not immediately place it in his locker because he was about to eat lunch. When the assistant principal discovered shortly thereafter that Canha had not yet put the coat in his locker, he escorted Canha to the security office and proceeded to search his book bag and wallet. Inside the book bag, the assistant principal found an arguably profane message and a compact disc with a parental advisory label. Canha was suspended from school for two days. The referral notice for the suspension says he was suspended for “Columbine attire.”
Later, three other students were sent home when they protested Canha’s suspension by also wearing trench coats to school.
“Unless our version of the incident is incorrect,” said ACLU of Virginia executive director Kent Willis, “school officials violated Canha’s right to due process when they made up the trench coat prohibition on the spot. And they violated his right of privacy when they searched him without reasonable suspicion to believe he was carrying contraband.”
“There is nothing we can do about the suspension, since it has already occurred,” added Willis, “but we can clean up Canha’s record so that this incident does not come back to haunt him in the future. As for wearing trench coats, it would appear that students are not violating any rule by wearing them, and we want assurances that students won’t be punished for doing so.”
“Although it is hard to imagine a constitutionally permissible policy selectively banning trench coats, schools have a right to maintain a safe environment and may use reasonable, consistent rules on attire to prevent contraband from entering school,” said Willis. “But those rules need to be adopted and sent to students and their parents before being enforced.”
A copy of the letter sent from ACLU of Virginia legal director Rebecca K. Glenberg to the school’s principal is available by fax or by sending an email request to

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