Civics Lesson in Self Expression:
The Napa Valley Unified School District Board approved a settlement on Dec. 14 between the school district and five Napa families, represented by the ACLU of Northern California, who challenged the "Appropriate Attire Policy" at Redwood Middle School. The settlement recognizes students' constitutional rights to freedom of expression.
At the center of the case was Toni Kay Scott, 14, who was disciplined for wearing a pair of socks with the Winnie the Pooh character Tigger on the first day of school last year. Toni Kay was escorted to the principal's office by a school police officer and then sent to detention.
“We took up this case because a California school was engaged in a pattern of school discipline in direct violation of well recognized standards of student self expression," said attorney Thomas V. Loran III of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, a law firm that collaborated with the ACLU-NC. "Not only is this an important issue in terms of kids affected by the illegal policy, it's also an important one for the community as a whole."
Under the settlement, any future dress codes limiting colors, fabrics, or patterns will only be implemented as part of a school uniform program that allows parents to opt out. The district will not ban letterings or pictures unless allowed by Education Code § 48907, which protects the free speech rights of students in California's public schools. The settlement states that students disciplined for violating the policy may also have that record expunged.
"While we would have welcomed a Court of Appeal decision on this issue, the families shared an interest in minimizing legal costs to the District," explained ACLU-NC attorney Julia Harumi Mass. "We are pleased that this settlement tracks the ruling of the court's preliminary injunction and provides permanent relief."
After the school board approved the settlement, Loran reflected on his experience with the case.
"There's a civics lesson here for adults who tend to trivialize the ideas and thoughts of middle schoolers: the people with the clearest vision all along were the students. They wanted to fight vigorously for their right to self expression, and they did."
The lawsuit was filed on March 19, 2007. Napa County Superior Court Judge Raymond Guadagni issued a preliminary injunction on Redwood's dress code. The district appealed to the California Court of Appeal, which referred the case to mediation in which all parties participated on December 12, 2007. A number of families joined the case, including the Santos, Fitzpatrick, Shin/Pham, and Dandini/Kiehl families.