Law & Courts

Court Throws Out Lawsuit in Uniform Fracas

By Mark Walsh — September 25, 2002 5 min read
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Mandatory school uniforms almost met their match in the form of a blue-collar Pennsylvania family.

When the Mount Carmel Area School District in eastern Pennsylvania adopted a strict dress code for its elementary school in 2000, it did not sit well with Carmine and Maria Scicchitano and a handful of other district parents. The families, offended by what they regarded as sartorial tyranny, have since given their children a two-year lesson in civil disobedience, the Bill of Rights, the American legal system, and the vagaries of iron-on patches. And they’re not done yet.

“I just don’t think a public school has a right to refuse to educate a child based on what he is wearing,” Ms. Scicchitano said last week.

The 1,800-student district’s policy requires boys to wear red, white, or blue shirts with khaki or dark slacks. Girls must wear blouses or shirts, and pants or skirts, also in the authorized colors. Cargo pants and jeans are out, as is the baggy look popular among many young people.

On the crucial topic of logos, the policy was clear: Children could wear the Mount Carmel Elementary School tornado logo, but no corporate or cartoon emblems. Walt Disney characters, sports logos, and prominent Abercrombie & Fitch tags were out.

“This way, you would have less of some kids wearing the Nike logos and the less wealthy children not being able to keep up,” explained Michele J. Thorp, a lawyer for the district.

But the Scicchitanos and other families objected that the uniform policy actually required them to shell out more for new children’s clothes that met the code.

“It cost me $400 just to clothe my child,” said Carlos Montoya, a truck driver. “This is not about educating children. This is about crushing their spirits.”

Protest Slogans

All They Are Saying ...

The first protest slogan shown below was prohibited by officials in the Mount Carmel (Pa.) Area School District, who viewed it as demeaning to those students conforming to the district’s uniform policy. District officials, however, gave the OK to other slogans.

Prohibited
  • “Followers wear uniforms. Leaders Don’t.”
Allowed
  • “A uniform is a terrible thing to wear.”

  • “The MCA School Board voted and all I got was this lousy uniform.”

  • “Looking alike is absurd.”

  • “I take the fifth.”

  • “I love MCA, I hate school uniforms.”

  • ”...you took away our clothes, what’s next, our crayons?”

The Scicchitano family began leading a dissident movement. Ms. Scicchitano said she used a computer program to begin printing iron-on slogans that protested the dress code. While it appears the district did not immediately recognize the students’ right to wear the protest slogans, it eventually allowed several to be worn as long as students were otherwise in compliance with the policy.

But one battle cry adorning the uniform of Filippo Scicchitano, who was then in 6th grade, met with complete disapproval from school administrators. On at least two school days, Filippo wore the slogan “Followers wear uniforms, Leaders don’t.” He was banished to the “student support room,” and faced other discipline because administrators found the slogan demeaning to other students, casting them as sheeplike if they complied with the uniform rule.

“We thought it was upsetting to teachers and students,” said Richard F. Beierschmitt, the superintendent.

Ms. Scicchitano, a mother of five, said Filippo was on the verge of being expelled when the family pulled him and his sister out of Mount Carmel Elementary and began homeschooling them. The Scicchitanos and three other families sued the district in federal court, alleging that the dress-code policy violated the First Amendment free-expression rights of their children.

Ironing Issues

U.S. District Judge Malcolm Muir of Williamsport, Pa., granted summary judgment to the district on most of the lawsuit’s claims in July 2001. The dress code by itself did not violate the First Amendment, he ruled. And after a trial over the “followers” slogan, he sided with the district on that issue, too.

The “followers” slogan hinders the school’s mission “to create a caring and safe environment and to foster leadership qualities in students,” the judge said in an opinion in October of last year.

The Scicchitanos and one other family appealed the rulings to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in Philadelphia. In an Aug. 26 opinion, a three-judge panel of that court appeared eager to address the merits of the case, calling the First Amendment issue “interesting.” It was prepared to analyze just how Filippo’s slogan fit under such rulings as the Supreme Court’s 1969 decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, which upheld students’ right to wear black armbands to protest the Vietnam War.

But the appeals court held that the uniform policy suit had to be dismissed on procedural grounds.

Because the Scicchitanos had withdrawn their children from the district, and because they were seeking only an order to change the policy, they no longer had legal standing to sue. The parents of student Samantha Jo Stancavage might have had standing, but there was no evidence she had ever worn the “followers” slogan.

The court noted that the girl’s mother had tried to iron on one of Ms. Scicchitano’s slogans to her daughter’s shirt. But, like the lawsuit, it failed to stick.

“I guess she didn’t do it the right way,” said Ms. Scicchitano.

In any event, Ms. Scicchitano vowed, her family has just begun to fight its legal battle against the district. They may try to target the state law that authorizes districts to adopt such policies.

Superintendent Beierschmitt lamented that the Scicchitano children have not returned to district schools. Their father, he said, used to help the district get hand-me-down equipment through his job as a technician for a television network. For obvious reasons, that’s no longer occurring.

Some districts are said to be tiring of mandatory uniforms, a policy that many public schools adopted in the 1990s. But the district is not only happy with its dress code, it recently extended it, in modified form, to its high school.

“There are so many variations allowed, it’s not really a uniform policy,” Mr. Beierschmitt said. “It’s just a standardized dress code. It’s going well.”

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