Civil Liberties Group Not Satisfied with School Board’s Response to Letter Regarding the Banning of “Latinos Forever” T-shirts, Disputes School’s Version of Events

Prince William County – The ACLU of Virginia has asked the attorney for Prince William County Schools to make an unambiguous statement guaranteeing free speech rights for students and to ensure fair treatment in the future for students who wear T-shirts with messages. The request comes in the wake of the controversial punishment last month of two Occoquan Elementary School students for wearing T-shirts to school proclaiming “Latinos Forever.”
“We’ve received some assurances that student free speech will be permitted in the future, but there’s way too much wiggle room in the school board attorney’s statement,” said Willis. “As written, almost any circumstance could justify suspension of First Amendment rights.”
In her April 4 letter to Willis, school board attorney Mary McGowan wrote that schools “…will not prohibit students from expressing their political beliefs by wearing clothing such as the T-shirts in question, so long as they are not worn, as they were on March 31 st, on a day and under circumstances where disruption of the schools and injury to students is foreseeable.”
McGowan also refuted the ACLU’s contention that the children had been treated unfairly, claiming that they were “never punished nor prevented from attending school.”
Willis took issue with this statement. “Holding the children in the principal’s office for three hours before calling their parents and having them eat their lunch sitting on the floor constitutes punishment in the eyes of most people,” said Willis. “And while technically the kids were not prevented from attending school, they were certainly not allowed to go to class.”
“There’s something fishy going on here,” said Willis. “When the parents arrived at school their children were wearing extra shirts they had with them over the “Latinos Forever” T-shirts. With the message covered, what was the real reason they were kept from class?”
In addition to seeking a clear statement of student free speech rights, the ACLU also seeks assurances that in the future when such situations arise parents will be contacted in a timely manner and that children whose clothes are deemed inappropriate will be allowed to change into other clothing, if such clothing is available, and attend class.
The two students are Joseph Soriano, 5 and Anderson Urrutia, 8. Their parents, Maria and Carmen respectively, explained to the ACLU how the day of March 31 unfolded.
Documents:
Willis's April 3 letter to Occoquan Principal Todd Erickson can be found at: http://acluva.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/20060403-Latinos-forever-T-shirt.pdf
McGowan's April 4 response can be found at:  http://acluva.org/wp-content/uploads/2006/04/20060404McGowanResponse.pdf
ACLU Legal Director's April 19 response to McGowan, sent on April 21 can be found at: http://acluva.org/wp-content/uploads/2006/04/20060424ResponsetoMcGowan.pdf
Contact: Kent Willis (office) 804/ 644-8022

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