It’s a new day but alas, the political hysteria remains the same. We have another story of an educator, this time a principal in North Carolina, acting a little crazy and again, the district was quick in responding and dealing with the unthinking—and arguably irrational—staffer. Students were asked to wear patriotic themed garb for the high school football game and one student, Matthew Collins, wore a shirt that wasn’t acceptable in the eyes of principal Cindy Gordon.
The jersey was meant to look like a real game jersey—a baseball one—and was red, white, and blue with USA and the Statue of Liberty on the front and the name Trump on the back, with the number 45 below. It actually resembles the Red Sox jerseys I have seen in my area that say Red Sox on the front and Impeach 45 on the back. One of those shirts is actual political speech, the other really isn’t. It is, instead, a shirt that, for better or worse, bears the name of a sitting president.
Somehow, the school principal, Cindy Gordon, thought the jersey was off limits because it was “political” and that she would be well justified to tell the young man that if he wanted to stay at the game, he’d have to take it off. She told Matthew that some parents in attendance had complained. Matthew followed her instructions but also decided to leave the game. Michael Collins, the boy’s father and a registered Democrat, told a local news outlet that the shirt was not meant to promote Donald Trump. He did add that “he’s our president” and that he believes that “you’ve got to respect your president.” That second point is obviously one upon which there is nothing even close to consensus.
Personnel changes were made within a week that removed the principal from her position. It is unclear If she is no longer with the district or has been reassigned. The district also put out a statement that said, in part, “again, we want to emphasize that Harnett County Schools supports and affirms students’ rights to express themselves — including wearing clothing expressing political messages or supporting political candidates or officeholders — in ways that are not expected to disrupt school or school events.”
I do have to wonder how any adults, let alone those who have jumped through the necessary hoops to teach students and run schools, would think it appropriate to insist that a student remove a piece of clothing that bears the name of a sitting president, however unpopular or controversial he may be with other people in attendance. Would the principal have reacted the same way if parents had complained about a shirt that said Obama 44, Bush 43 or Clinton 42? Or imagine if this had been a young woman wearing a Hillary Clinton shirt—is there any possible way that she would have been told to remove the shirt or leave?
While it’s true that the rules of the game in terms of political norms and reliability of pollsters and pundits feel like they have shifted beneath America’s feet, the rules of fairness and free expression must not. We cannot treat students differently based on the candidate or office holder that they like, dislike, or choose to represent on their clothing at a football game. And if ever there were a way to energize Trump supporters or folks who remain undecided for the midterms—or in 2020—these are the unforced errors that will do it.
Let’s get a grip, people. It’s really starting to seem that students are handling themselves far better than the grown-ups in their schools.