Calif. high school apologizes after punishing student for wearing American flag T-shirt

CALIFORNIA — Administrators of a Dos Palos high school areapologizing for a dress code violation mishap that occurred Sept. 16 after astudent was forced to remove his American flag T-shirt.

Brian Walker, superintendent of the Dos Palos – Oro Loma Joint UnifiedSchool District, said Dos Palos High School student Jake Shelly was punished forwearing a tie-dyed American flag T-shirt with the words “United States ofAmerica, Washington, D.C.” on it.

Shelly was participating in the school’s hippie dress-up day duringits homecoming week.

Walker said Heather Ruiz, Dos Palos High School vice principal, spottedShelly in the morning and asked him to come into her office so that he couldchange his T-shirt. There, Ruiz issued Shelly a bright yellow “DCV: DressCode Violator” T-shirt to wear until school ended.

Walker said Ruiz is a first-year vice principal for the district and cameto the new position after being a physical education teacher for several years.Ruiz was reviewing an updated dress code policy the school district recentlyimposed.

Ruiz “identified a section of that dress code that she thought thatshirt may have violated,” Walker said. “And, so consistent with theprocess and procedure of a dress code violation, she asked him to removeit.”

The policy states the district prohibits “shirts/blouses that promotespecific races, cultures, or ethnicities.”

Walker said the school’s principal, Terri Gill, had a meeting withRuiz and reviewed the policy with her. They called Shelly and his parents thenext morning to apologize and to admit they made a mistake. The principals alsocalled the local American Legion Post, who had been notified of the incident, toapologize to them as well.

“And so clearly, she made a mistake and misinterpreted the intent ofthe dress code,” Walker said. “And, we have all since tookresponsibility and apologized.”

Shelly’s situation did not go without notice. Students protested bywearing all red, white or blue T-shirts the next day of school, and localtelevision stations were not far behind.

Walker said the media blitz that occurred in his district has been somewhatpopulous, with many of the local Fresno television stations interviewingstudents. According to reports, an unidentified teacher snatched onestudent’s microphone clip off his shirt during an interview. Walkerdefended the decision saying the father of that particular student informed theschool that he did not want his son doing interviews with any media.

“And, so what that teacher was doing was trying to comply with thefather’s request, that as a minor, he should not address the press or anyreporters,” Walker said.

Shelly’s sister Kaycee Shelly, 16, was seen on a local televisionreport with students protesting and chanting “USA” in thebackground. She spoke with a local ABC-affiliate in Fresno Sept. 18, whichposted the news story on its Web site. Video footage of the T-shirt can also beseen there.

“It’s embarrassing, it really is. I mean, you have a big shirtthat says Dress Code Violator,” she told ABC30. “It’sembarrassing and humiliating.”

All seemed to calm down two days later after the district’s board ofeducation held a meeting where Gill read a statement making a formal apology forthe mishap.”By no means was this done with the intent to ban ourstudents from expressing their patriotism,” Gill said at the meeting,according to the Merced Sun Star. “The rule was actually written toencourage patriotism and school spirit, since we are all Americans and Dos PalosBroncos.”

The paper reported that local American Legion’s Roy Hart was”visibly upset during his comments, trembling and with tears in hiseyes.”

“It is hard for me to believe that a person in power might not knowthe laws and freedoms afforded to all citizens,” he said.

Kaycee Shelly told ABC30 her family did accept the apology, but some werestill not satisfied.”But, there’s other people who do not thinksorry is good enough,” she said.

Jake Shelly could not be reached. Ruiz would not comment for this story,Walker said.

By Alberto D. Morales, SPLC staff writer