Philadelphia - At the request of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, the Palmerton Area School District (Carbon County) has agreed to clear the disciplinary records of 20 high school students who wore "Property of PHS [Palmerton Area High School]" t-shirts to class to protest a new school dress code. The students will also be allowed to make up school work missed because of the school's disciplinary action and to wear the shirts in the future without fear of retaliation.
"The ACLU of Pennsylvania is relieved that the school district's study of the First Amendment has led it to the correct conclusion: Nondisruptive political statements, whether the wearing of a "Property of PHS" t-shirt to protest a prohibition against blue hair dye or a black armband to protest the Vietnam War, are protected by the First Amendment, period," said Valerie Burch, staff attorney for the ACLU of Pennsylvania and one of the lawyers representing the students.
On September 15, the day of a Palmerton Area School District board meeting, approximately forty Palmerton Area High School students wore "Property of PHS" t-shirts to school. The shirts, which were meant to compare the school to a prison, were part of a protest of student dress code policies that prohibit body piercings and "non-typical" hair color. The principal called the students into the cafeteria and gave them the option to change shirts, serve an in-school suspension, or leave school grounds and receive an unexcused absence and receive zeros for school work missed that day. Twenty students took the option of in-school suspension or an unexcused absence.
"I hope that whoever thinks young people today don't appreciate the meaning of living in a free country has learned a lesson from the students of Palmerton Area High School," said Brandon Mazepa, Palmerton Area High School senior and an organizer of the protest.
After being contacted by several of the students and their parents, the ACLU-PA sent a letter to the school district on September 28 informing the school district that disciplining students for wearing t-shirts protesting the school dress code violated the students' First Amendment free speech rights. Yesterday the school district agreed to expunge the students' records, allow them to make up missed classroom assignments and quizzes, and to permit students to wear the shirts in the future.
More information about the case, including a copy of the ACLU's letter to the school district, is available here: https://www.aclupa.org/our-work/legal/legaldocket/studentspunishedforwearing/