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A Piercing Question : Student Leader Grudgingly Complies With School Officials’ Order to Remove Tongue Stud

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On the surface, Scott Dygert seems to have everything. Not only is Dygert, a high school junior, the student body vice president and president of the Debate Club, but he was also selected to represent his peers on Assemblywoman Debra Bowen’s (D-Marina del Rey) Youth Council. And last year, he lettered in track.

But a closer look at Dygert reveals that something is missing: the tongue stud he wore until last week, when administrators at South Torrance High School told the student role model to lose the silver stud or lose his job as vice president.

Dygert took his leadership skills and legal smarts to administrators Monday, where he argued that they were violating his constitutional right to express himself. But the B-average student lost his battle. He said the principal told him that because he represents the school, administrators may determine what is appropriate. A tongue stud is not.

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“It’s unfair,” said Scott, 17. “I feel like I’m being singled out. There are a lot of other kids on campus who have their bodies pierced, and no one is telling them to take their earrings out.”

Student government advisor Mavis Furjanick, the teacher who told Scott to remove his tongue stud, would not discuss the matter. “What needed to be done has been done,” Furjanick said. “I have no further comment.” Principal John O’Brien did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment.

Though Dygert contends that wearing a tongue stud won’t affect his job, administrators disagree. When the student leader, who participates in beach clean-ups and visits retirement homes with a community service club, was elected vice president last year, he signed a contract that said he would “represent the school district in an appropriate manner.”

The contract is vague and does not define “appropriate,” but Torrance Unified School District policies allow school personnel to make that determination, according to the school rules, copies of which were given to all students.

Last year, when Dygert was sophomore class president, he had four earrings, three in his left lobe and one in his right, and no one complained that his dress was inappropriate. His classmate Kyle White, junior class president, wears three earrings without any problem.

But White says there is a difference. “I don’t think he should be able to wear it, because we are supposed to set an example,” he said. “A tongue ring is going too far.”

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Another Student Council member, who did not want to be named, said she thought Dygert was being treated unfairly.

“I don’t approve of tongue rings, but it wasn’t interfering with his work and at least a dozen people at school have them,” she said.

Body piercing may be the latest battleground, but warring over student attire is a time-honored high school ritual.

Although the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California has not seen any body piercing cases, they have defended students’ rights to express themselves, said spokeswoman Ann Bradley.

For the most part, however, cases like Dygert’s don’t prevail in the courts, said 1st Amendment attorney Rex Heinke. The Los Angeles lawyer said that in a freedom of expression case, the plaintiff must show that his or her point of view has been stifled. He said a tongue stud usually doesn’t represent an opinion.

“Generally speaking, the school districts usually prevail,” Heinke said. “In many recent cases, the Supreme Court has been willing to defer decisions to teachers and principals on how schools should be run.”

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Even Dygert’s parents sided with the school. His mother, Janet Strickland, attended the meeting with administrators and said their viewpoint was fair because it didn’t prohibit him from wearing a tongue stud, just from continuing to wear it as a Student Council member.

She said she was more concerned that the school delivered her son an ultimatum without consulting his parents. She hadn’t even noticed the stud, which he had had for only four days, when the district told him to get rid of it.

“We thought it was a little macabre and disgusting ourselves,” Strickland said. “We didn’t give him permission to do it. The school should have called when they first noticed it.”

And Scott’s father, Edward Dygert, agrees. The real estate lawyer says this isn’t the battle his son should spend his time fighting.

Still, Scott Dygert is bummed out. The swelling had just gone down when he took out his stud. He said he wanted to pave the way for future students. But even he has to agree with his parents.

“There are other more important battles to fight,” he said. “To fight battles, you have to be in a position to do so. If I fight it, I’ll miss class, and I don’t want to do that.”

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