A seventh grader at a middle school in Fort Bragg, N.C., was asked to cover up a T-shirt that a teacher found offensive — but the girl’s parents claim faculty members misconstrued the shirt’s message, which they say touts a message of anti-discrimination.
The student, Emery, showed up to classes at Albritton Middle School for dress-down day on Friday in her favorite black T-shirt with a phrase in white letters that read, “Why be racist, sexist, homophobic or transphobic when you could just be quiet?” The shirt is similar to one famously worn by musical artist Frank Ocean at the 2017 Panorama Music Festival. Emery’s mother, Katie Smith, said in a Facebook post that her daughter was excited to get to school that day because she was to be recognized for an academic achievement.
But that same day, Emery’s father, Brad Smith, received a phone call from the school saying that “some of her teachers” had taken offense at the girl’s shirt and had her cover up the message with a sweatshirt. Albritton Middle School is part of the Fort Bragg military community and classified as part of DDESS, or the Department of Defense’s Domestic Dependent Elementary and Secondary Schools. Brad is a Fort Bragg soldier.
Katie said that when she arrived at the school to pick up her daughter, Emery was “distraught,” so she went to the front office to find out what the problem was with the T-shirt. Katie told Raleigh, N.C., news station WTVD that the school’s assistant principal said he had gotten phone calls and emails from staff complaining about the shirt, but that he did not find it particularly offensive himself. “He was not entirely forthcoming and was clearly trying to watch his words,” she wrote, adding that the problem was with the -phobia words themselves.
But Katie stands by her daughter’s sartorial choices — and said the message of the shirt is aligned with what she teaches Emery. She wrote on Facebook that she “felt like the shirt represented categories of children who are marginalized, and she will be the one that has their backs even when those teachers and admins don’t.” She wrote that she was “signing [Emery] out to go celebrate her bravery and her values.”
“In a time when we’re trying to combat bullying, I think that [the school’s choice] is so counterproductive to that,” Katie told WTVD.
Now, Katie wants the school officials to apologize to Emery, and she’s pushing for equal-opportunity training for teachers, according to WTVD. “It’s not OK for somebody to discriminate against them,” she said of teachers. “Why would it ever be OK for them to discriminate against our children?”
The mom wrote on Facebook that she is also considering pulling her daughter out of the class of the teacher who is seemingly “so offended by homosexuality and transsexuals,” just in case her daughter identifies that way.
Despite the ordeal, Emery did receive a certificate for her academic achievement and posed with it — along with her proud military dad. He wore his fatigues, while she wore the shirt in question. Katie posted the photos of the duo to Facebook, where they were met with an outpouring of support for the girl.
“What shame — the school really missed an opportunity to support free speech in a thoughtful and inclusive manner,” one person wrote. “Her shirt is the opposite of offensive — it’s teaching the practice of acceptance,” another commented. “I guess the teacher needs to be sent home. All they had to do was just be quiet,” a third joked.
Jade Fulce, the Department of Defense Education Activity public affairs officer, released the following statement regarding the incident:
“Students are at the heart of everything we do. After further review of our dress code policies, we realized that the shirt did not violate our policies. The school reached out to the parents and apologized that same day.”
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