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Student suspended, then unsuspended, for pro-war T-shirt

ERIN WALSH
Staff Writer

OCEANSIDE ---- A teenager's pro-war T-shirt caused a stir Friday at El Camino High School, where officials suspended the boy for wearing the shirt, then allowed him back into school on the advice of lawyers who warned that administrators may have been infringing on his free speech rights.

Derik Rosario, 15, whose mother is a Marine master sergeant fighting in Kuwait, wore a T-shirt that read, "War: Justifiable Homicide" to school Friday morning, the same day an anti-war protest was scheduled at the school.

According to the school, he and a few other boys wearing pro-war T-shirts were asked early Friday morning to turn the shirts inside out or face suspension in order to prevent conflict with the war protesters.

"I looked at the shirts, and I pictured the protest that morning, and I saw a situation that could turn ugly or dangerous," said Principal Ron Briggs. "So I asked them, for safety reasons, to turn the shirts inside out."

The other boys complied. Derik refused.

"I sat there and thought about my mom and what she was fighting for, and I said to myself, 'I can't give in on this,' " said the boy, who took a one-day suspension rather than lose the shirt. "I believe what I believe and I support what my mother and the troops are doing, and I have as much of a right to express my feelings as the students protesting the war."

After conferring with their attorneys, district officials decided Derik was right. They called him at home and asked him to return to school, Oceanside Unified School District Associate Superintendent Joe Graybeal said.

"We talked to our legal counsel and decided that we'd acted too quickly, that the boy hadn't caused any disturbances, and that we should undo what we'd done," said Graybeal. "In future cases, we will not be so hasty."

The district was smart to reverse the suspension, said San Diego media attorney Guylyn Cummins, who specializes in First Amendment cases. According to a 1960s Supreme Court ruling, students have the right to express their opinions through clothing as long as the message does not incite violence or cause physical disruption, she said.

"The Supreme Court has made it painfully clear that students don't lose their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse gates," said Cummins, who has represented the North County Times regarding free press issues. "The bottom line is that schools can't control the content of students' clothing just because they don't like what it says. The clothing has to almost certainly cause a disturbance in order to be banned."

Briggs said the shirt did not cause disruption after the boy returned. Derik, a member of the Marine Corps Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, said he received support from friends upon his return to class.

In the end, Briggs said, he was proud of Derik for standing up for his rights.

"As a principal, I have to think about safety first. It wasn't about the message, it was about what might happen if someone threw a rock at that kid and a fight broke out," he said. "But in hindsight, I am really proud of Derik."

Derik said he respects the students who protested the war during a peaceful walkout Friday, but wished people would put themselves in the boots of troops like his mother, a communications specialist, before forming an opinion about the war.

"Some nights I stay up staring at the ceiling, thinking about her and wondering if she'll come home alive," he said. "I want her to know that I love her and support her, no matter what anyone else thinks."

Contact staff writer Erin Walsh at (760) 901-4090 or ewalsh@nctimes.com.

3/22/03

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