UPDATED: School district says suspended student’s anti-Obama shirt caused ‘disruption’

An Aurora fifth-grader was “screaming and loudly arguing” with other students on the playground last Thursday in a dispute over a handmade anti-Obama T-shirt that led to the student’s suspension, according to a statement issued Tuesday by the Aurora Public Schools district. The boy’s sister wore a similar shirt at the school the same day and “did not disrupt learning,” the statement said.

The dispute over the hand-scrawled T-shirt boasting “Obama a terrorist’s best friend” did not mention the playground altercations in early news reports though outlets were quick to trumpet the boy’s father, Dann Dalton, threatening to sue and referring to the school district as “full of liberal loons.”

APS “[does] not suspend students for exercising their first amendment rights,” and in fact “students wear hundreds of shirt designs, including political shirts, without interruption to the school day,” spokesperson Paula Hans said in the release.

Students at this school and throughout the district, have been wearing endorsement shirts for both presidential candidates. Because these shirts have not caused disruptions, students have not been asked to remove them.

Hans cites the APS dress code, which is reproduced in a student handbook for the district:

“Any type of attire which attracts undue attention to the wearer, and thus causes a disturbance to the educational process is in bad taste and not acceptable. While preserving the individuality of our students is important, we also see the importance of preserving the educational process.”

School policy when clothing causes a disruption is to give students a choice to “turn the shirt inside out or change into another shirt” before considering discipline, the statement said. “Because the shirt did cause a disruption, we offered the student these options.” Hans declined comment to the Colorado Independent on any details of Daxx Dalton’s suspension, citing student privacy laws and policies.

The Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog posted a response to the fracas from a New York civil liberties attorney Tuesday afternoon:

E. Christopher Murray, a partner at New York law firm Reisman, Peirez and Reisman and the president of the New York chapter of the Civil Liberties Union sent the Law Blog the following in an e-mail: “The wearing of this t-shirt can only be prohibited if it could cause a risk of material disruption at the school,” wrote Murray. “It is hard to see how this t-shirt could be viewed this way. Students have a constitutional right to express their opinions about politics, and this t-shirt was not vulgar or anything other than a political statement. While the courts have recently cut back on student’s rights of expression, this case clearly seems to be an illegal curtailment of this student’s rights. ”

The legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado seconded Murray’s remarks. “If the parents call here, we’d be very happy to look at the facts,” Mark Silverstein told the Colorado Independent Tuesday afternoon.

“It’s a First Amendment issue and the ACLU is very concerned with First Amendment issues,” Silverstein said, pointing to a 2004 Florida case where the ACLU stepped in after school officials forced a high school senior to remove a T-shirt that read “International Terrorist” under a picture of President Bush. “The issue is whether the school has sufficient grounds to suppress the message,” Silverstein said.

The legal issues aren’t clear without fully examining the facts, Silverstein told the Colorado Independent. “The school would have to demonstrate there’s a risk of material disruption of school activities, that wearing the T-shirt substantially interferes with the work of the educational mission of the school.”

“We respect the free speech rights of our students, but at the same time we respect the rights of all students to learn without interruption,” APS Superintendent John Berry told a press conference Tuesday afternoon, according to Denver’s 9News.

“I am not one to sit there and say that, you know, I don’t want to offend somebody, because the truth offends a lot of people,” the suspended student’s father, Dann, told the television station.

Dalton also said he wants an apology and compensation for the time he took off from his job as a trucker to spend at home while his son was suspended.

The Rocky Mountain News reported Tuesday afternoon that the 11-year-old was suspended for three days. The Rocky also reports Daxx says his father came up with the slogan and “did most of the work” to create the T-shirt.

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Ernest Luning

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