- The Washington Times - Monday, April 3, 2006

RICHMOND — The American Civil Liberties Union yesterday asked a Northern Virginia elementary school principal to apologize to two students for keeping them out of class because they wore T-shirts bearing the slogans “Latinos Forever” and “100% Latinos.”

The state ACLU also wants the principal to clear the incident from the boys’ records and to assure that the Woodbridge school won’t violate students’ free-speech rights by issuing a statement indicating that such clothing will be allowed henceforth.

Occoquan Elementary School Principal Todd Erickson barred Anderson Urrutia, 8, and Joseph Soriano, 5, from classes Friday because they were wearing the T-shirts on the final day of weeklong protests by some Northern Virginia residents against proposed congressional restrictions on immigration.

No protests occurred at the Prince William County school.

“School administrators are so concerned about discipline in school that they neglect the fundamental rights of students,” Virginia ACLU Executive Director Kent Willis told the Associated Press.

“Not only do students have a constitutional right to express themselves in the school so long as they’re not disrupting the educational process, but schools ought to be encouraging students to express themselves.”

In a letter to Mr. Erickson, Mr. Willis cited the 1969 Supreme Court decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which held that the First Amendment protects students’ political expressions during school hours so long as they don’t materially and substantially disrupt the education process.

The decision upheld a student’s right to wear a black armband to protest the Vietnam War.

Mr. Willis called the incident last week a “carbon copy” of the Tinker case.

Mr. Erickson detained the second-grader and kindergartner in his office as they were on their way to their first class, out of concern that the T-shirts would be disruptive.

Their parents refused to have their children change their shirts, opting to take them home, said Philip Kravits, a spokesman for Prince William County schools.

“This is about a principal’s best effort to keep his school safe and orderly, nothing more,” Mr. Kravits said. “The principal made his best judgment call by asking the parents to have their children change shirts that might prompt some older students to want to walk out of school and into harm’s way.”

Mr. Willis said the boys are the youngest he has seen involved in school free-speech issues. Generally, he said, they are middle- and high-school students who develop their ideas independently.

“This is a case where clearly the parents, or at least an older relative, [are] involved,” Mr. Willis said.


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