Administrators suspend students for wearing memorial T-shirts

NEBRASKA -- Administrators and district officials for Millard South High School in Omaha, Neb., are facing protest from students who came to school wearing T-shirts with the phrase "Julius RIP" printed on the front.

Officials for Millard Public Schools say the shirts could be interpreted as gang related because local police "referred to a person as a possible gang member." The student being memorialized, Julius Robinson, was shot and killed in June, in what local authorities say was a gang-related shooting.

Angelo Passarelli, Millard Public Schools director for administrative affairs, said 27 students were suspended during a three-day period Aug. 27 through Aug. 29 for wearing the T-shirts that Passarelli said were "gang-related." He said the school's principal in conjunction with a school resource officer made the initial decision when they contacted the local Omaha Police Department's gang unit. The school resource officer confirmed with the head of the gang unit the term "R.I.P." could be considered gang-related, Passarelli said.

But Lieutenant Darci Tierney, Omaha Police Department public information officer, could neither confirm nor deny what Passarelli said.

"I can see how it can be disruptive," Tierney said. "But to say it's gang-related is a little funny."

Tierney said a Millard high school administrator called the police department's gang unit to find out if the shirts with the term "Julius RIP" could be considered gang-related and a disruption to the school.

"I think it could cause trauma for students who witnessed the crime," she said. "But, it's ultimately their (the school's) decision."

The front of the T-shirt shows a photo of Robinson, 18, in his football uniform and another photo of him smiling while talking on a cell phone. His jersey number is in the background of the design with the words "Julius RIP" on the top of the shirt. On the back of the shirt is the phrase "Only God Can Judge Me" with "me" crossed out, and replaced with "him now."

Kelsey Penrod, 17, and a senior at the high school, said she was suspended for wearing the shirt. Penrod said the shirt was being sold to help raise money for Robinson's family to afford a headstone for his grave.

"I don't think it's right," she said. "The shirt doesn't say anything gang-related, and there's no reason not to wear it in school."

Penrod said she was wearing the shirt underneath a jacket that was halfway zipped. She said a school official told her to zip up the jacket to cover the shirt or go to the principal's office. She refused to cover the shirt and said while at the office an assistant principal explained why the shirt was gang-related.

"She said the term 'R.I.P.' was considered gang-related by law enforcement," Penrod said. "When I asked her why, she told me I hadn't done my homework."

Passarelli said the students weren't suspended for "R.I.P." but for the message the shirt was interpreted as communicating, which he said undermined the dress code.

Vicki Kaspar, the assistant principal Penrod was quoting, would not comment and referred all comments to the district's media relations department.

A Millard Public Schools spokeswoman said the policies in place are clear when it comes to attire.

"We have policies that determine what appropriate attire is," said Amy Friedman, the district's communications director. "And attire that has the potential to cause a safety risk for other students is prohibited."

Passarelli argued that the shirts were "no different than letting kids wear a red or blue bandanna." "When you know they're Bloods or Crips and that becomes a gang insignia, I don't think there is a difference," he said.

While the school has never had a gang problem, Passarelli said the school got information from an opposing gang member that students wearing the shirts might face retaliation.

"We had rumors that those kids in the shirts were going to get theirs," he said.

Amy Miller, legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska, said parents contacted her office within an hour of the suspensions. Miller said the school district's attorney, Duncan Young, told her they would be willing to remove the suspensions but the T-shirts still cannot be worn.

"Their reasoning according to (Young) is Julius was killed by a gangster," Miller said. "Ergo, if you wear a shirt that expresses grief, the gangsters may get angry and endanger those wearing the shirts."

Passarelli and Friedman confirmed this reasoning for the suspensions.

Miller said the ACLU is willing to take action pending approval from its board of directors, who will meet on Sept. 20. She said a lawsuit will be filed unless the school decides to allow the students to wear the T-shirts and the suspensions are removed from the students' school records.

Miller said three minor students' parents are willing to pursue a lawsuit along with a fourth student who will soon be 18 years old. She said three other parents do not agree with what the school was doing, but would not agree to be part of a lawsuit.

While there is no allegation that Julius was himself a gang member, Miller said hypothetically, "Even if (Julius) was the darkest criminal of them all, you still have a right to say sorry that he's dead and resting in peace."

Millard South High School, Nebraska, news