Schools response to sweatshirt scandal shows short memory

National media attention was focused on Dearborn last week when nine Arab-American boys at Edsel Ford High School got in hot water for wearing sweatshirts with imagery evocative of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The shirts featured the school’s Thunderbird logo apparently flying into a block-style “11,” in reference to the boys’ place in the class of 2011. Inside the numerals are what appear to be four-square windows and below in quotations marks is “You can’t bring us down.”

School administrators made the boys remove the sweatshirts after some staff and students complained they were offended and the boys were reportedly embarrassed. They said they made the shirts as a sign of solidarity among their clique and meant for it to be a positive message. The parents of the students were also reportedly angered over the children’s decision-making and had the schools dispose of the shirts.

That’s lucky for Dearborn Public Schools.

Even though district officials reportedly contacted legal counsel about potential free speech violations, recent history would suggest the boys might have a case. After all, it was only six years ago that a Dearborn High School student-provocateur dinged DPS for more than $22,000 in legal fees in a similar incident.

In that case, DHS junior Brett Barber was given the choice of removing a T-shirt depicting President George W. Bush and the words “International Terrorist,” or going home for the rest of the day. He chose the latter and subsequently filed – and won – a federal free speech lawsuit.

While educators are given considerable latitude in censoring student speech, the judge in the Barber case, was rather clear in its ruling: the school could not prohibit a student from wearing a shirt with the words “International Terrorist” written on it, despite fact that many Middle Eastern students at the school may have been offended. Furthermore, the judge stated that the few hostile remarks made to school officials regarding a dislike of the shirt did not qualify as a substantial disruption or material interference.

Although the circumstances aren’t identical, the parallels are clear. The Edsel Ford administration should have considered this costly lesson of recent years before making such a knee-jerk reaction in this case.