A Central California school district this week agreed to change its dress code after settling a federal free speech lawsuit by a high school junior who was sent home after refusing to change out of a T-shirt that said, “Nobody knows I’m a lesbian.”
Taylor Victor, a 16-year-old junior at Sierra High School in Manteca, and her mother sued two school administrators after Victor was told to change out of the shirt because it was an inappropriate display of sexuality and violated the Manteca Unified School District’s dress code.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which represented Victor, said it reached a settlement with the district that was approved by its school board Tuesday night.
Under the terms of the settlement, the district and its administrators denied wrongdoing. The district agreed to change its dress code to clarify that students cannot be prohibited from wearing clothing supporting their or their classmates’ identities on the basis of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation and other characteristics.
“Students continue to be supported in their right for self-expression in all of our high schools,” Manteca Unified School District said in a statement Wednesday. “Our number one priority continues to be the ability to keep our kids safe physically and emotionally.”
ACLU attorney Linnea Nelson, who represented Taylor, said in an interview that being a lesbian “is an important part of Taylor’s identity, and she shouldn’t be censored from talking about it at school.”
“Students don’t leave their rights to free speech at the schoolhouse gates,” Nelson said. “At the end of the day, the law on this is very clear, that public schools can’t censor the personal beliefs of students just because they think it might be controversial.”
In August, Taylor wore her new T-shirt to class ironically: She was open about being a lesbian, having come out the year before. She was supported by family and friends and felt safe wearing it to school.
The shirt “made me laugh because pretty much everybody knows I’m a lesbian,” Taylor wrote in a blog post for the ACLU of Northern California. Throughout the day, other students complimented her on the shirt.
But in third period, Taylor’s teacher noticed the shirt and sent her to speak with Vice Principal Greg Leland, who was named as a defendant in the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Sacramento in October. Leland, the suit says, told Victor to change her shirt “on the grounds that she was not allowed to display her ‘sexuality’ on clothing.”
Taylor refused to change and, with her parents’ permission, went home, the suit says. The next day, she met with Leland, telling him the dress code did not prohibit the shirt; he told her that she was not allowed to display “personal choices and beliefs” on her clothing and that it violated the dress code because it was “disruptive” and could be “gang-related,” the lawsuit says.
Assistant Principal Dan Beukelman, who also is named as a defendant, said she could not wear the shirt because it was “promoting sex” and an “open invitation to sex,” the suit says. Beukelman told Taylor that even if the shirt were allowed at other district schools, it was prohibited at Sierra High School, court documents state.
As part of the settlement, the district agreed to let Taylor wear her “Nobody knows I’m a lesbian” shirt to school and to take “reasonable measures to protect [Taylor] from any known harassment or bullying by other students or any district employee” in reaction to the shirt or for bringing the lawsuit.
The district also agreed to provide regular training to its high school administrators on student free speech and free expression and to pay the ACLU of Northern California $63,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs.
In her blog, Taylor said she was happy with the result.
“I’m very proud of who I am,” she wrote. “That’s the whole reason I wore that shirt. And it’s the reason I’ll keep wearing it — because after months of fighting this censorship battle, we won.”