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Thursday, May 23, 2024 | Back issues
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School District Backpedals on Lesbian T-Shirt

SACRAMENTO (CN) - A Northern California school district will change its dress code and train employees to settle a lawsuit from a high school student it sent home for wearing a "Nobody knows I'm a lesbian" T-shirt.

The 16-year-old's attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union said Wednesday that Manteca Unified School District agreed to update its rules and allow students to "express their own identity" through clothing.

Taylor Victor was sent home last August from Sierra High School in Manteca after school officials said her shirt "promoted sexuality" and could be "gang related," according to the October 2015 complaint. Victor and her mother responded with a federal lawsuit alleging free speech and civil rights violations.

After four months of legal proceedings and discussions, the ACLU said, freedom of speech won out, as the law clearly states that public schools "can't censor the personal beliefs of students."

"Freedom of speech is a bedrock principle of our democracy, and censorship teaches students exactly the wrong lesson on what America is about. We are pleased to see the district make these changes," said Linnea Nelson, attorney with the ACLU of Northern California.

After being sent home on Aug. 10, Victor and her father met with Sierra High School principals Ban Beukelman and Greg Leland to discuss the school's dress code. The principals told Victor she was not allowed to display her "personal choices and beliefs on a shirt," and that the school can expel students for "willful defiance."

The high school junior said she wore the shirt to show other students that it's "OK to be true to yourself" and that LGBT people should be proud of their identity.

"Standing up to my school was really hard to do, but I'm so happy that I did because the right to free speech is a big deal for everyone," Victor said in a statement.

While the school district has agreed to alter its dress code and provide professional development training for administrators, the settlement did not require it to admit it singled out Victor or violated her right to free speech.

The school district agreed to pay Victor $1 in nominal damages, $63,000 in attorneys' fees and allow her to wear the shirt without threat of punishment.

The school district said in a statement that its "number one priority continues to be the ability to keep our kids safe physically and emotionally."

Similar lawsuits filed have been filed elsewhere over the same T-shirt, including a September incident in South Carolina.

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