More than 20 Capital High School seniors are not allowed to participate in tonight's graduation ceremony because they directly defied an order from Principal Clinton Giles.
(Update: The students were allowed to graduate after all. Here's the story.)
The order: don't wear a shirt to school that abbreviates the word "Capital" as "Cap" and displays a paw print. The shirt isn't the school's official colors, either.
These symbols do not preserve the "purity, image or integrity" of the school, Giles said, and should therefore not be allowed.
"I'm curious to know how or why what I've done is a terrible thing, seeing as what those students did," Giles said.
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.
Senior class President Noah Moody admits he organized the effort to wear the shirts to school Friday, and that he had been warned of the consequences.
The shirts were created to show school spirit, and he said he thinks students should be allowed to exercise their freedom of speech.
Giles said the students were openly insubordinate and went against instructions from their principal.
"What could you expect the principal to do in this situation?" Giles said.
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 - the school's mascot is the cougar - that holds a list of 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.
This shirt was a symbol of something that had been "simmering under the surface," Giles said.
The real issue started with a different T-shirt.
Giles said someone with the school's lacrosse squad - an unaffiliated club that only exists because he allows it, he said - created a shirt that said "Cap Lax." He saw a student wearing the shirt, and asked him to remove it, he said. Soon thereafter, he said he saw that student wearing the shirt at a baseball game.
Although he did not refer to the student by name, he said the student was the senior class president. Moody said he wore the shirt.
Giles then sent a copy of the policy that disallows such displays to a lacrosse coach. In the memo, dated May 4, Giles highlighted an amended portion that seems directed specifically toward the lacrosse shirt.
"Representations of the Cougar Mascot must be approved in advance, also," it states. "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 had heard about the memo, but he said he wasn't really sure why the words were an issue. So in the past week, after receiving 120 requests for senior shirts, he ordered his shirt. The font he chose was blocky, he said, so the word "Capital" presented a problem.
"You couldn't fit 'Capital' with Big Beach font," Moody said.
Giles said more than 100 students, all wearing the shirt, gathered in the school's parking lot and had planned to march in together. An assistant principal warned the students that Giles was not going to like the shirts and that they probably shouldn't wear them, Giles said. The students wore them anyway.
Giles said he gathered all of the students into a room and told them the shirts weren't acceptable. Moody recalls the meeting as well.
"The paw print is not the Capital symbol, it's the leaping cougar," Moody said, remembering words from Giles during the meeting.
At the end Giles told the students he was going to leave the room "and compose myself" and when he returned, he shouldn't see any more of the shirts. He said he anticipated the students would flip the shirts inside out, remove them or cover them.
When he returned, about half were still wearing their shirts. Directly thereafter, all of the seniors went to a ceremony to celebrate senior accomplishments. At the beginning of the event, Giles said he "offered the same opportunity to correct that defiant act."
After his speech, 21 students - including Moody - still wore the shirt. This was the fifth time Giles said he had offered a chance to change. Now it was time to face the consequences.
"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."
Sending a message
Giles said it's completely within his rights to keep the students from walking at graduation. The county's student behavior policy creates three different levels of severity for violations. However, the denial of participation in a school activity is a possible punishment for any infraction.