A California high school got a lesson in how to say sorry this week.
Canyon High School, based in Anaheim Hills, issued an apology to 16-year-old Haley Bullwinkle, a student there, after first telling her that a T-shirt she wore to school violated its dress code policy on clothes depicting and promoting violence. The garment in question: a T-shirt with a photo of the American flag and a hunter, along with the words, “National Rifle Association of America, Protecting America’s Traditions Since 1871.”
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It never occurred to the sophomore that the shirt she grabbed when she was running late for school a couple of weeks ago would land her in trouble with officials. But Bullwinkle was confronted by a security guard outside of class and told she had to change her shirt or face a suspension. She cooperated and wore a top the school provided for the duration of the day, but the incident frightened the teenager, and outraged her parents.
In an interview with a local news station, Haley's father, Jeb Bullwinkle, who received the NRA shirt after he joined the organization, said he was shocked that the school would think his daughter was promoting violence by wearing the T-shirt. “Haley is an excellent student. She doesn’t get into trouble and would never harm or hurt anyone.” The Bullwinkles said the school’s policy challenged Haley’s First Amendment rights.
“At first, it was just kind of me wearing that shirt to school like an every day thing,” Haley said in the local news interview. “But now I feel it’s a symbol of my rights that I’m supposed to have as an American.”
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Canyon High School has since changed course on the matter. Calls from Yahoo Shine to principal Kimberly Fricker and superintendent Michael Christensen weren’t returned, but Fricker did apologize to the Bullwinkle family. Superintendent Christensen also released a statement saying, “Campus staff will be trained so that an incident like this does not occur again.”
It’s not clear what kind of training will be implemented, but child psychologist and author of "The Self-Aware Parent," Dr. Fran Walfish tells Yahoo Shine that she understands the points of view of both the school and the parents. “We have an increase in violence in schools, so when a student wears anything provocative that stirs up a controversial issue like guns or being pro-guns, schools will react,” she says. “I think schools have a right to enforce a dress code, but it should be clear and concise to avoid any misunderstandings like these. And it sounds like this was not handled properly.”
Firearms attorney Chuck Michel, who has represented the NRA and is working with the Bullwinkle family, tells Yahoo Shine in an email, "We applaud the school’s recognition of Haley’s right to freedom of expression and are thankful that common sense has won out over political correctness in this case. To avoid future cases like this, we hope the school district revises its dress code to more accurately define what constitutes a threat of violence."
Walfish says that an open dialogue about dress codes between parents, students and school officials would help eliminate incidents like these, in which students feel unfairly targeted. “Everyone should go into an auditorium — teachers, parents, principals, students and administrators — and give everyone a chance to be heard and validated. Then it will be up to the administration to make a decision on a dress code that has strict, clear rules.”