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History Repeating: Don't Censor What I Wear, Let Me Be

How are we supposed to have an identity if we all have to dress and act like what our school decides is appropriate?
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By Kyler Sumter, age 16

Kyler Sumter is a 16-year-old junior at Lindblom Math & Science Academy in Chicago. She is a participant in the Youth Narrating Our World (YNOW) through the OpEd Project.

While growing up most parents always tell their kids to be themselves. Most of us grow up believing that we should express ourselves no matter what. When we get to high school, though, it seems everything is contradicted. We don't get to be ourselves anymore, we become what the schools deem as right or appropriate.

Recent history holds plenty of examples.

Five boys who were sent home from their northern California high school know exactly what it feels like. In 2010 the boys were sent home for wearing shirts that displayed the American flag on Cinco De Mayo. The administrators at their school told them that they needed to respect Mexican culture.

If the boys wore the shirts for the sole purpose of offending their Mexican classmates, yes, that's insulting but did they need to get suspended for it? Do the schools expect us to get dressed every morning thinking about whether our clothes will offend certain people?

Schools all over have been limiting their students freedoms to express themselves, and they've gone to the extremes. In 2010 students from around the country were punished for wearing the famous "I heart boobies" bracelets, but it was ruled that the bracelets are protected speech because they're a part of a breast cancer awareness campaign.

In 2011, Nebraska student, Elizabeth Carey wasn't allowed to wear her rosary to school because local gangs had been wearing them, while for her the rosary was a symbol of Jesus.

Last year Zachary Aufderheide was suspended because his long hair violated the school dress code, while he was only growing his hair to donate it to a foundation called Locks of Love.

But Tinker VS. Des Moines is the most famous historical case surrounding this issue. Nearly 50 years ago this month, the 1968 case was about three students who were suspended from school for wearing black armbands.

John Tinker, Mary Tinker and Christopher Eckhardt wore these bands in protest of the Vietnam War, but their school didn't agree. The parents sued, and the courts upheld the school's right to decide.

The First Amendment gives us all the right to free speech but schools have the ability to limit our free speech in what we wear. These students felt strongly about the war and they weren't even allowed to showcase it.

This is especially important at this time in our lives. We're teenagers, we're just trying to find ourselves.

Some kids might want to try out new things by wearing certain clothes and accessories. Some students may want to say or write certain things to express themselves, but the school administrators get to make the decisions for us. Who knows what effect our schools will have on us in the long run. They have the power to actually form and shape who we will be as adults, and that's kinda scary.

How are we supposed to have an identity if we all have to dress and act like what our school decides is appropriate?

I realize that our schools have a responsibility to the students and the community. I know they can't just let us do whatever we want. Sometimes they do need to censor us.

I agree that schools should have the power to censor what is printed in their newspaper and I agree that schools shouldn't let girls wear revealing clothes or let guys sag their jeans.

What I don't agree with is the schools censoring their student's opinions and clothing choice when they don't bring harm to anyone else. If I don't agree with the war why shouldn't I wear an anti-war shirt? If I have certain opinions why must I keep them to myself?

The schools are not only contradicting what our parents have told us, they're contradicting themselves.

They decide to teach us about people like Rosa Parks, Susan B. Anthony and Booker T. Washington. These are people who freely expressed themselves, people who went to jail for what they believed in. We learn about how these people expressed themselves and conquered and we can't even express ourselves in the hallways.

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