Protest is a lesson in conflict

Students suspended after walking out


Students dressed down after protesting dress code The students at Northeast Baltimore's Academy for College and Career Exploration have been learning about their right to peaceful assembly in social studies class, and this week a few dozen of them decided to exercise it.

Angry about stepped-up enforcement of the school's dress code, they walked outside after first period Wednesday, held up signs and called a television station. The principal came out and offered to talk through their concerns if they would come inside. They held their ground.

A motorist called 911 after nearly hitting one of the students standing in the street, Principal Christopher Maher said. He said the responding police officers told him they would arrest the students if he didn't suspend them. He suspended 24 students for three days.

One boy was arrested and accused of talking disrespectfully to a police officer, school system officials and students said.

About 10 of those suspended showed up at school Thursday and asked to be let back in, Maher said. This time, he had to hold his ground.

But when the suspended students return Monday morning, there will be a community mediator on hand to work through the dress-code issue with students, parents and administrators.

"We're trying to use this as a real teachable moment," Maher said, adding that he plans to convene a committee to study the dress code. "It's a great real-life application of what [students] are learning."

The startup school is in its second year, with 230 freshmen and sophomores. Its dress code requires students to wear a white button-down shirt, black pants, a belt and black shoes. Boys must wear a tie.

The conflict began, Maher said, when some students started showing up to school wearing hooded sweat shirts. A few came wearing red bandannas and other red accents, which can symbolize a gang color.

On Tuesday night, the school called every student's home and reminded parents to send their children in uniform. Wednesday morning, administrators distributed letters to eight students dressed improperly, Maher said. Students then decided to walk out.

Three of the suspended students said their frustration was not with the dress code itself but with how strictly one administrator was enforcing it.

"Nobody wore anything inappropriate," said Latoya Brown, a 15-year-old sophomore who said she was sent home Wednesday morning after she wore a white blouse with gray and silver pinstripes and became upset when an administrator questioned it. "We just wanted to spice it up a little bit, but we were still professional," Latoya said.

Devon Brown, also 15 and a sophomore, said he wants to see students treated like adults. "If a girl wants to wear a blouse with stripes going down it, which is very professional, let her wear it," he said. "She's here to get her education, she's professionally dressed, leave it at that."

Devon, who was featured in the documentary Boys of Baraka and will play a truant student in the next season of the HBO series The Wire, said he was particularly frustrated to see a few of his classmates who are struggling to stay in school get punished for not wearing a tie.

Laquise Brown, 16 and a sophomore, said she likes that students have to wear uniforms. (Latoya, Devon and Laquise are unrelated.)

"It keeps everybody from fussing," she said, "but sometimes everybody's parent can't buy certain types of belts and stuff like that for the uniforms. I think they should let little stuff fly."

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