T-Shirt Trouble Bars Seniors From Graduation

POSTED: 12:00 PM May 22 2012   UPDATED: 12:03 PM May 22 2012

More than 20 Charleston high school seniors were banned from participating in their graduation Monday after they defied their principal's repeated orders not to wear a T-shirt that he disliked.

It wasn't that the T-shirts contained inappropriate language. Capital High School Principal Clinton Giles objected because the shirts shortened the school's name to "Cap," weren't the school's colors and used a paw print instead of the school's official running cougar mascot.

The Charleston Daily Mail reports (http://bit.ly/KCF8F2) that there was no school money involved in the project, and no teacher, administrator or official club contributed in any way to the shirts. However, Giles said there are strict guidelines on how the school may be represented.

"I'm curious to know how or why what I've done is a terrible thing, seeing as what those students did," Giles said.

Senior class President Noah Moody admits he organized the effort to wear the shirts to school on Friday, and that he had been warned of the consequences.

On its front, the black shirt reads "Cap Senior Class" in blue print. The back of the shirt is emblazoned with a blue paw print that lists 10 reasons why students are glad to graduate. Nothing in the list is inappropriate or hateful, both Moody and Giles said, although one item takes a jab at Giles' shaved head.

Giles said it wasn't the shirt, but the open insubordination that caused him to prohibit the students from participating in graduation.

"What could you expect the principal to do in this situation?" Giles said.

Giles said the issue goes back to a T-shirt created by the school's lacrosse squad that said "Cap Lax." He saw Moody, the student president, wearing the shirt and asked him to remove it. The principal later saw Moody wearing the shirt at a baseball game.

Giles sent a copy of the school policy that prohibits such displays to a lacrosse coach.

"Representations of the Cougar Mascot must be approved in advance, also," states the memo, dated May 4. "Inasmuch as possible, the 'Running/Leaping Cougar' logo should be utilized as frequently as possible as representation of the nickname and mascot of our school; not paw prints and certainly not shortening of the school name ('Cap', Cap High, etc.)."

Moody said he knew of the memo, but that didn't stop him from ordering more than 100 shirts for seniors.

Giles said that on Monday more than 100 students wearing the shirts gathered in the parking lot and planned to march into school together. After a warning from an assistant principal, Giles gathered the students together and warned them to remove the shirts. Giles warned them again later that morning, but he said 21 students, including Moody, continued to disobey his orders.

"We don't want to just squash student creativity," Giles said. "But when you're told in advance not to do something, that's different."

The county's student behavior policy allows principals to deny participation in a school activity as punishment for an infraction. In the policy, insubordination is the same level of offense as gang activity, bullying or theft.

School board members were split on whether they thought Giles did the right thing.

"This is like giving the death penalty for a parking ticket," school board President Pete Thaw said.

Board member Becky Jordon said that she respects and "always defends" Giles, but that she can't agree with him this time.

"I don't think that's enough for a child not to march," Jordon said.

Board member Bill Raglin, however, said Giles has a point. He said no student has the right to disobey a principal, and it was too late in the year for detention or suspension.

"There has to be some price to pay for insubordination," Raglin said.

Giles said some of the students involved were "the cream of the crop." In addition to being class president, Moody is a high honors student, Promise scholar and an Eagle Scout who plans to study biology at Shepherd University.

Moody said he didn't expect a $7 T-shirt would keep him from participating in graduation. He said he and another student planned to apologize to Giles, but that he doesn't regret taking a stand.

For Giles, it's too little, too late.

"You can't spit in someone's face and then come back and say you're sorry," he said.