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Middle school ‘Justice for Lil Pickle’ T-shirt kerfuffle spawns lawsuit

What started as a lunchtime school concert featuring the song "Crack is Wack" ended with students being forced to remove shirts reading "Justice for Lil Pickle."

VENTURA, Calif. (CN) — It was, perhaps, inevitable that the strange incident at a Ventura County middle school last year when dozens of students were banned from wearing T-shirts reading "Justice for Lil Pickle," would result in a First Amendment lawsuit.

It began, innocently enough, with a Friday lunchtime recital by student Dylan Arevalo, otherwise known as Lil Pickle. The day before, Arevalo announced on Instagram that he would be performing his original song, "Crack is Wack," along with two other students. Buzz for the performance was stronger than anyone would have imagined — hundreds of middle schoolers showed up for the outdoor concert. School staff found the size of the crowd troubling, according to the lawsuit.

"When the Cabrillo Middle School staff and administrators observed a large group of students headed to one outdoor location on campus, they summoned the police, believing something nefarious was taking place," the complaint, filed Thursday in Ventura County Superior Court, says. "Upon viewing the spontaneous performance, the administrator dispersed the crowd and sent 'Lil Pickle' home for the day. School administrators confiscated students' phones and attempted to persuade students to delete any recordings or photographs of the performance from their phones or else face detention or other administrative punishment."

The debacle might have been forgotten if not for the actions of one student, the plaintiff, identified only as G.K. because he is a minor. G.K. went home that weekend, borrowed a friend's heat press and made dozens of T-shirts with the message "Justice for Lil Pickle." He says he sold about 40 of the shirts to both students and teachers, along with some hats.

That Monday, five to 10 students, including G.K. and his sister P.K., wore their shirts. When Vice Principal Jennifer Brandstetter spotted G.K.'s shirt, she demanded he take it off. G.K. refused. Brandstetter then called the student's father Kenny Kushner, who just so happened to be a captain with the Santa Barbara Police Department. The police officer told the vice principal that he supported whatever decision his son made.

"I was really taken aback," Kushner told the Ventura County Star last year. "It felt so overreaching."

Ultimately, G.K. backed down, put on a sweatshirt, and went to take his math test.

Other students were similarly admonished. Six of them complied and put on gym shirts. But P.K. refused, saying she was exercising her First Amendment rights to free speech. Administrators called her parents, who picked her up from school early.

Why was the school staff so offended by such innocent looking T-shirt? According to the suit, Principal Lorelle Dawes "found issue with the use of the term 'pickle,'" while Brandstetter "was personally offended with use of the word 'justice.'" Both Dawes and Brandstetter are named as defendants in the lawsuit. Neither appear to be employed by the school any longer and did not respond to emails requesting comment.

A spokesperson for Ventura Unified said in an email, "At this time the district is not aware that a lawsuit has been filed."

In an email to Kushner, shown to the Ventura County Star, Dawes said administrators were afraid that all the "frenetic energy around Little Pickle" might lead to a "mob or riot."

"I think they found that it embarrassed them," the plaintiffs' attorney Ron Bamieh said. "One of their statements was, 'It makes them seem like they did something wrong.'"

He added: "They're feckless people who are more concerned about themselves than the people they're supposed to be educating."

The T-shirt ban was soon rescinded. But the plaintiffs claim that in the subsequent months, both G.K. and P.K. "became the targets for undue and heightened scrutiny for their innocuous daily activities. For example. plaintiff G.K. was threatened with detention for eating in a certain sector of the school and was told by a school administrator that they would make sure any misconduct on his part followed him to high school."

Of the administrators, Bamieh said, "Their behavior was poor, and we want to call them out on it. There’s no dream of millions of dollars."

When asked what his clients wanted to get out of the lawsuit, Bamieh said, "An apology. And a check for some amount."

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