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Following current events related to immigration reform, a group of students came to school wearing t-shirts representing national flags from a variety of countries and were bullied by fellow students with a variety of racial and ethnic slurs. How would you respond to both groups? Be sure to cite any applicable case law, school board policies, and state laws to support your answer.

One could respond to both groups by citing Tinker v. Des Moines (1968), which ruled that students have a right to symbolic protest on school property, meaning that the students wearing t-shirts are protected by the first amendment. The other students may claim that they too are exercising their right to free speech, but most school districts ban verbal harassment based on race or ethnicity because it creates an unsafe learning environment.

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This type of situation is all too common in the public school setting. Fortunately, there are plenty of case laws, state laws, and local policies that can help you formulate your response to both groups.

According to the Supreme Court Case Tinker v. Des Moines (1968), symbolic protest in the...

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This type of situation is all too common in the public school setting. Fortunately, there are plenty of case laws, state laws, and local policies that can help you formulate your response to both groups.

According to the Supreme Court Case Tinker v. Des Moines (1968), symbolic protest in the public school setting is a protected right under the first amendment so long as it does not "materially and substantially interfere" with the operations of the school. (Source: Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District). Since wearing a t-shirt does nothing to interfere with instruction, this student group's protest is constitutionally protected.

The only situation in which this might not be the case would be if the school dress code bans clothing with certain type of symbols. In most counties, including my home county of Wake County, North Carolina, these restrictions only apply to "shirts with lewd, indecent, or vulgar messages or illustrations" and "clothing that advertises products or services illegal to minors." However, provided that the shirts the students are wearing are simply representations of various countries' flags, these rules most likely do not apply (Source: "Dress Code/Overview").

The students responding to this protest with racial and ethnic slurs may argue that they are exercising their right to free speech as well. However, this is not the case. Most school districts have fairly strict anti-bullying policies that prohibit this kind of behavior because unlike the t-shirt protest, it is disruptive to the educational environment. The anti-bullying policy in Wake County prohibits any kind of targeted written or verbal harassment

reasonably perceived as being motivated by actual or perceived differentiating characteristic such as race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin... (Source: "Bullying Prevention")

Many school districts have expanded their anti-bullying policies to include electronic communication that happens off of school property (i.e., cyberbullying). This may seem like a double standard if one group of students is allowed to express their opinion and the other isn't. However, think about the educational impairment that comes from both groups. If you don't agree with the message someone's t-shirt is sending, you can choose not to look at it. However, if someone is repeatedly harassing you verbally or electronically because of your perceived alignment with a cultural group, that is going to be much more difficult to ignore and can create an unsafe environment for learning.

You might consider asking the other group if they could express their views in a more respectful way, like having conversations about immigration policy or events in the news instead of targeting students with racial and ethnic slurs. These students still have a right to express their beliefs, but according to school policy, they must do it in a way that does not threaten or demean others, especially if those they are threatening are part of a protected class.

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