Accused of violating students' 1st Amendment rights, the Simi Valley school district agreed Wednesday to settle a lawsuit by throwing out a dress code policy so restrictive that students were barred from wearing patriotic T-shirts to school.
The district also will pay more than $16,800 in legal fees in its settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued the district in federal court last fall on behalf of 14-year-old student John Spindler.
The ninth-grader was sent home from Valley View Junior High School after wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the American flag and other national symbols, in violation of the school's dress code forbidding clothing with any writing or pictures except school emblems.
District officials said the policy was enacted last summer to improve campus safety after the fatal schoolyard stabbing of a 14-year-old. But ACLU attorneys said it violated students' constitutional rights to express themselves.
The school will retain the rest of its dress code, but will allow students to wear shirts conveying "an expression of thoughts or ideas." Shirts bearing vulgar or sexually suggestive slogans will remain taboo, as will baggy pants, steel-toed shoes and skirts not of "modest length."
A federal judge announced the settlement agreement Wednesday afternoon.
Wearing his American flag T-shirt, Spindler stood on the steps of the U.S. District Courthouse in Los Angeles with his parents Wednesday and said he was relieved that the case had been resolved.
The boy said he planned to wear one of his patriotic shirts to school Monday, when the policy is officially rescinded. Attorneys agreed to give the school district a few days to notify parents before changing the dress code.
ACLU lawyer Marvin Krakow said the civil rights group was confident that it could have won the case in court, but settled to avoid a lengthy trial.
"Students don't leave their 1st Amendment rights at the schoolhouse door," Krakow said. "Students have the right to express themselves."
Simi Valley Supt. Mary Beth Wolford said school officials still believe that the policy does not violate students' rights, but that fighting the lawsuit would have been too expensive.
"We believe the staff and the principal were working to be proactive in trying to address safety," Wolford said. "But you never know when you go to court how it could turn."