Administrators suspend students for wearing memorial T-shirts

NEBRASKA — Administrators and district officials for MillardSouth High School in Omaha, Neb., are facing protest from students who came toschool wearing T-shirts with the phrase “Julius RIP” printed on thefront.

Officials for Millard Public Schools say the shirts could be interpreted asgang related because local police “referred to a person as a possible gangmember.” The student being memorialized, Julius Robinson, was shot andkilled in June, in what local authorities say was a gang-related shooting.

Angelo Passarelli, Millard Public Schools director for administrativeaffairs, said 27 students were suspended during a three-day period Aug. 27through Aug. 29 for wearing the T-shirts that Passarelli said were”gang-related.” He said the school’s principal in conjunctionwith a school resource officer made the initial decision when they contacted thelocal Omaha Police Department’s gang unit. The school resource officer confirmedwith the head of the gang unit the term “R.I.P.” could be consideredgang-related, Passarelli said.

But Lieutenant Darci Tierney, Omaha Police Department public informationofficer, could neither confirm nor deny what Passarelli said.

“I can see how it can be disruptive,” Tierney said. “Butto say it’s gang-related is a little funny.”

Tierney said a Millard high school administrator called the policedepartment’s gang unit to find out if the shirts with the term “JuliusRIP” could be considered gang-related and a disruption to the school.

“I think it could cause trauma for students who witnessed thecrime,” she said. “But, it’s ultimately their (the school’s)decision.”

The front of the T-shirt shows a photo of Robinson, 18, in his footballuniform and another photo of him smiling while talking on a cell phone. Hisjersey number is in the background of the design with the words “JuliusRIP” on the top of the shirt. On the back of the shirt is the phrase”Only God Can Judge Me” with “me” crossed out, andreplaced with “him now.”

Kelsey Penrod, 17, and a senior at the high school, said she was suspendedfor wearing the shirt. Penrod said the shirt was being sold to help raise moneyfor Robinson’s family to afford a headstone for his grave.

“I don’t think it’s right,” she said. “The shirt doesn’tsay anything gang-related, and there’s no reason not to wear it inschool.”

Penrod said she was wearing the shirt underneath a jacket that was halfwayzipped. She said a school official told her to zip up the jacket to cover theshirt or go to the principal’s office. She refused to cover the shirt and saidwhile at the office an assistant principal explained why the shirt wasgang-related.

“She said the term ‘R.I.P.’ was considered gang-related by lawenforcement,” Penrod said. “When I asked her why, she told me Ihadn’t done my homework.”

Passarelli said the students weren’t suspended for “R.I.P.” butfor the message the shirt was interpreted as communicating, which he saidundermined the dress code.

Vicki Kaspar, the assistant principal Penrod was quoting, would not commentand referred all comments to the district’s media relations department.

A Millard Public Schools spokeswoman said the policies in place are clearwhen it comes to attire.

“We have policies that determine what appropriate attire is,”said Amy Friedman, the district’s communications director. “And attirethat has the potential to cause a safety risk for other students isprohibited.”

Passarelli argued that the shirts were “no different than lettingkids wear a red or blue bandanna.” “When you know they’re Bloods orCrips and that becomes a gang insignia, I don’t think there is adifference,” he said.

While the school has never had a gang problem, Passarelli said the schoolgot information from an opposing gang member that students wearing the shirtsmight face retaliation.

“We had rumors that those kids in the shirts were going to gettheirs,” he said.

Amy Miller, legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union ofNebraska, said parents contacted her office within an hour of the suspensions.Miller said the school district’s attorney, Duncan Young, told her they would bewilling to remove the suspensions but the T-shirts still cannot be worn.

“Their reasoning according to (Young) is Julius was killed by agangster,” Miller said. “Ergo, if you wear a shirt that expressesgrief, the gangsters may get angry and endanger those wearing theshirts.”

Passarelli and Friedman confirmed this reasoning for the suspensions.

Miller said the ACLU is willing to take action pending approval from itsboard of directors, who will meet on Sept. 20. She said a lawsuit will be filedunless the school decides to allow the students to wear the T-shirts and thesuspensions are removed from the students’ school records.

Miller said three minor students’ parents are willing to pursue a lawsuitalong with a fourth student who will soon be 18 years old. She said three otherparents do not agree with what the school was doing, but would not agree to bepart of a lawsuit.

While there is no allegation that Julius was himself a gang member, Millersaid hypothetically, “Even if (Julius) was the darkest criminal of themall, you still have a right to say sorry that he’s dead and resting inpeace.”