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If You Can't Beat 'Em, Ban 'Em

Like prisoners, army recruits, the mentally ill, and foreigners, children don't have the same rights that most American adults do. The abridgers of those rights take many forms--parents, state, religious moralists, club owners--but perhaps nowhere is kids' freedom more heatedly contested than in public schools... Got a problem in school? Try banning something. Lots of things are banned, and for lots of different reasons. Usually these reasons aren't very good. One could conceive of a ban to improve communication and learning, in which case corporate promotions, moral evangelicals, and guns would be banned. There aren't too many cases like that, though.

In Pikeville, Kentucky, Karla Chapman, 13, is sent home from school for wearing black lipstick. She returns to school wearing a better-looking shade of purple, is sent home and suspended. Karla responds by attempting suicide and, upon failing, returns clean-lipped in hopes of transferring to a nearby school that doesn't prohibit black lipstick. (Associated Press 1/14/97)


School District 202 in Plainfield, Illinois, joins other school districts across the nation in banning "look-alike drugs": candy cigarettes, fake chewing tobacco, non-alcoholic beer, and oregano. Various reasons are cited for the ban, one being that candy cigarettes can possibly lead to real cigarette use, that they send an inappropriate presmoking message. Secondly, that the prevalence of fake drugs makes it difficult for school administrators to find the real ones. And that the use of certain substitutes such as mint-flavored herbal snuff increase the chance that users may be considered "yuppies." (Chicago Tribune, 1/7/92, 2/7/92).


Pogs--the "tiddlywinks of the 90s" and "the next baseball cards"--are banned in schools in Washington, D.C., Albany, and Arizona among other areas across the country. Pogs are round pieces of cardboard the size of gambling chips that come in a million or so designs, some decorated with Power Rangers, sports logos, Disney characters, Harley-Davidsons, Batman, M&M's, or attractive plaids. To play, kids take turns "slamming" a stack of Pogs to flip them over; in the more controversial version ("keepsies") they keep the one that lands face up. As one fourth-grader Pog-lover put it, it's "like gambling, but not with money"... which, incidentally, is one of the reasons anti-Pog factions banned the game. The other, more common one being that the out-of-control Pog trade disrupts classtime. Proponents of the latter don't necessarily agree on whether Pogs are good or bad, just on that they're in the way.

Outside of school, few seem to think the game does any harm. As one parent put it, "it's better than watching television." Added a writer, they don't bite, shed, smell, escape from cages, or have babies.


To combat "gang-related problems," administrators at Calumet High School in Chicago ban black, white, and red clothing. Incidentally, these colors are the same ones worn by the Chicago Bulls. The ban includes the new red/black versions of Air Jordans. Michael Jordan has expressed concern that his shoes were linked to negativity. In regard to students who object to the dress code, Paul Vallas, CEO of Chicago's public schools, is quoted as saying "There are alternative schools for disruptive students that they may want to apply to." (The Source, July 1996)


San Francisco's public school board bans clothing and accessories with cigarette logos. They also have a ban on gang attire and clothing bearing racist remarks. (Christian Science Monitor, 5/30/96)

Public schools in Merrimack, New Hampshire, instigated a policy called Prohibition of Alternative Lifestyle Instruction that bans instruction or counseling that has "the purpose or effect" of "encouraging or supporting homosexuality as a positive lifestyle alternative." "All we're trying to do is protect our kids from the homosexual agenda that starts with sympathy and acceptance of gays and leads to special minority rights," said Bert Tenhave, a member of Concerned Citizens of Merrimack, a "pro-family" group. Rather than risk discipline or firing, teachers have reshaped and in some cases eliminated parts of the curriculum that deal with Walt Whitman, Tennessee Williams, AIDS prevention, teen suicide, and Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (in which a woman impersonates a male page in a comedy based on gender ambiguity). (The Times-Picayune, 3/31/96)


A school district in Salt Lake City banned all school clubs so it wouldn't have to permit a gay-student club. (Knight-Ridder, 3/31/96) The decision was affirmed in April 1996 when Utah's state legislature voted to let school boards ban student clubs that "involve human sexuality." (Mother Jones, July 1996)


Gays are banned from a public school panel on diversity in Colorado Springs. (Kansas City Star, 7/30/1996)


In a decision said to "protect the integrity of the abstinence message," a federal judge ruled a Los Angeles public school district may ban wearing packaged condoms on clothing. An eighth-grader who wore condoms on her clothes and shoes during class said the ban violated her First Amendment right to promote AIDS awareness. An attorney for the school district responded that wearing condoms trivializes the message. (Houston Post, 5/17/94, Inside Schools, 7/18/94)


Concern over the inability to ban "gang-like clothing" inspires legislation requiring public school uniforms. Sixteen-year-old Jesse Atondo led a pro-uniform crusade by collecting signatures in front of a local supermarket.

"A lot of kids, especially in fourth, fifth grade, are going to the gang style, " Atondo said. "I don't think a kid in fourth grade should be wearing baggy pants and oversized clothes.... All the bag boys at the market said, `You shouldn't be doing this.' But I would have one person say no and ten people say yes." (Sacramento Bee, 5/8/94, The Times Union, 3/5/94)


Duval County, Florida, School Superintendent Larry Zenke bans Snow White for children in kindergarten through second grade--not out of loathing of Disney, but because of violence. (English Journal, Nov. 1993)


The Supreme Court overturns a ban on guns within a 1,000-foot radius of public schools. Led by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, five Justices agreed that the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 is unconstitutional, rejecting the government's argument that guns in schools contribute to violence. (Time, 5/8/95)


Albuquerque public schools ban students from wearing sagging trousers that show their underwear. (Three Star Edition, 3/5/94)


In Grand Rapids, Michigan, a federal judge who has received death threats for ordering a picture of Jesus removed from a high school hallway rejects a plan to add portraits of other historical figures to the display. That plan--a settlement reached by lawyers working on the case--resolved that the picture of Jesus could stay if similarly sized portraits of Abraham Lincoln and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., were placed on the same wall. U.S. District Judge Benjamin Gibson said a settlement "still violates the Constitution and promotes a particular religion excessively by a public body."

The portrait had been donated to the school in the '60s in memory of a dead secretary. (Chicago Sun-Times, 11/30/93)


A Halloween party for students is banned at Pine Island Elementary after protests from parents and religious leaders that the holiday glorifies Satan. Teachers--who ended up holding a November "fall festival" instead--unanimously agreed to reinstate the Halloween festivities the following year. (Sun-Sentinel, 10/18/91)


In Santa Fe, New Mexico, public school officials consider a ban on spanking elementary school pupils after a series of lawsuits costing the Santa Fe district thousands of dollars per spank. "More and more, I'm thinking this just isn't worth it," said school board member Rita Baca Crespin. (UPI, 7/13/87)

Research by Adriana Younskevicius.

See also Thought for the day

STAY FREE! asks: If you could ban something from school, what would it be?


"Those shop classes where about 900 of us pack into that warehouse and sew jeans."




"Swirlies. And wet willies... no, I don't care, just keep 'em. They're how I keep clean."




"Having MCI representatives in the cafeteria trying to get us to switch our phone service. Oh, and the credit card reps on the playground are too strict about income requirements."




"The way librarians can just stick stuff anwhere they want. Make 'em use the Dewey Decimal system and stop using those 'sorta true,' and 'the rest' sections.




"I don't think guidance conselors should make you fish your schedules out of their pants."




"I'm torn. Either the crushing ennui of organizational learning, the soul-destroying forced socialization and pack mentality, or the Friday lunch fishwiches."




"I'd ban self-immolation. Kids should talk to their teachers about problems first."




Children.




"They should ban diagramming sentences, though I don't really have any argument against 'em."




"I'd want to regulate the sale of Now-and-Laters. But not ban it, though."




"New math. Oh, and no more pale green walls."