Q. My son's high school has a new dress code. They are banning T-shirts that have sayings on them, because they could incite kids to violence. My son's favorite shirt is a black T-shirt with a peace sign on it that says "Not War." I fail to see anything wrong with this. Can you explain what's behind the thinking about dress codes? Aren't clothes just a safe way for kids to express themselves?
A. I could give you my opinion about slogans on T-shirts, but I think it would be interesting for you to also ask those who established the "no sayings on T-shirts" rule -- either your school administration or student council. Also ask your son why he thinks this across-the-board rule was put in place. He probably has a fairly good idea.
Mostly likely you'll discover that school authorities developed this portion of the dress code because they don't want to be put in the position of having to make a call on every single T-shirt. Although your son's shirt clearly promotes peace, it could incite emotion in a pro-war teen. And another child's shirt might not be so clear or even positive in its message. The "all T-shirts" rule excludes all messages, including ones with profanity, designer labels, sexual or sexist messages, racial or racist lines, hateful or hurtful sound bites, and even religious sayings. Also, words can have a double meaning; a clear-cut rule, rather than one that's open for interpretation, is easier to enforce fairly.
Strong references to political and religious opinion can evoke anger, sometimes leading to aggression or violence. These days, school administrators want to do everything possible to contain strong emotions, while keeping the focus in school on academics. Certainly, as you mentioned, teens do need a forum to express their developing values. A political science class would be the perfect place for your son to voice his pro-peace point of view. The classroom -- with its structure and protocol -- is the more appropriate venue for free speech.
It's important, too, for teens to realize that T-shirts with messages are inappropriate in other places, as well, including the workplace. Clothing with messages detracts from the work at hand, and strong messages could cause an unnecessary rift between employees who need to work side-by-side. Teens who learn to dress appropriately for their surroundings are better prepared to join society as adults. Your school administrators are, in fact, teaching your son a valuable lesson. And it is up to you, as his parent, to make sure he understands it.