These middle schoolers wore the homemade T-shirts in support of a gay classmate who had been harassed. (Photo: NBC5)
When a group of middle school students in Texas came to class wearing T-shirts that announced their backing of LGBT rights, they thought they were supporting a classmate who had recently been bullied for coming out—as well as exercising their right to free speech.
But school officials deemed the T-shirts a violation of the school dress code, which prohibits “disruptive” or “distracting” clothes. They demanded that the kids take them off, according to news station NBC-5. The clash sparked a battle that pitted school administrators against students during the last week of the school year.
The controversy started on Wednesday at Faubion Middle School in the town of McKinney. Seventh grader Sammy Heiman designed the T-shirts at home, putting “Gay O.K.” across the front in big white letters. It was part of a campaign she came up with to support a friend who was bullied for being gay, according to WFAA News.
At school that morning, about 15-20 students wore the T-shirts. “We sat there quietly with our shirts on, not causing any commotion,“ said student Isha Lal to WFAA.
But at lunch in the cafeteria, a battle broke out, with students and school administrators having a different take on what happened. According to the kids, administrators told them they had to remove the T-shirts or leave school. "We refused to change when they told us we had an option to change or leave,” Heiman told WFAA. “We didn’t change.”
A school district spokesman, however, said that the shirts sparked a student rally in the cafeteria. It was only at that point did officials tell the students that they had to take off the shirts.
The message on the shirts was not the issue, and the school fully supports students’ right to free speech, Cody Cunningham, chief communications officer for the McKinney Independent School District, told NBC5. “In this particular case, a verbal disruption occurred between a large number of students in the cafeteria as a result of the shirts. This was not a civil debate, but rather yelling and shouting, and [it] alarmed a large number of students.”
“While we respect student free speech, our primary obligation is to ensure a safe and productive learning environment for students in McKinney ISD,” Cunningham told NBC5.
But students dispute that account. “We were doing perfectly fine until lunch,” Heiman told NBC5. “And then the [administration] called us all out, all the people wearing them, called us out of the cafeteria. And people started getting rowdy because they knew what was going on. They were making us take off the shirts.”
The controversy appears to show that administrators have violated students’ rights, David Mack Henderson, president of Fairness Forth Worth, an organization that fosters LGBT rights, tells Yahoo Parenting. And it reveals the need for the school district to develop an LGBT-inclusive anti-bullying policy.
“The US Department of Education has been crystal clear about the rights of LGBT students and their allies in regards to free association and speech rights,” says Henderson. “We absolutely support the students.”
Since the school year has ended, the battle may be on hold until the end of the summer. In the meantime, Heiman said she is fielding requests for the T-shirts she designed and made, reported WFAA.