WEST ORANGE, NJ — The dress code and what constitutes a violation to the code in the West Orange School District was brought to the West Orange Board of Education’s attention at its Oct. 7 meeting when a Liberty Middle School eighth-grader and her mother described citations she received a few weeks earlier. Justice Cillo-Smith was issued a dress code violation for wearing a shirt that said “We’re all lesbians” across the front of it, a reference to the Broadway musical “The Prom,” in which a lesbian student is banned from bringing her girlfriend to her high school prom. Justice was told by school administrators that she was in violation of the sixth and seventh bullet points of the dress code.
The sixth bullet point prohibits clothes that “contain references to illegal substances, sexual innuendos, inappropriate language and pictures, sayings or symbols that show affiliation to hate groups, gangs or demeaning messages directed towards any individual group or association.” The seventh prohibits “any accessory that can be dangerous and/or disruptive to the learning environment.”
“She indicated to me than she felt singled out,” Gwen Wu, Justice’s mother, said of her daughter at the meeting. She said LMS Principal Robert Klemt “told me he was looking out for her best interests, because her shirt said ‘lesbians’ on it, but she felt she was being discriminated against.”
Wu said that a friend of Justice’s, who is a student at Roosevelt Middle School, wore the same shirt to school after Justice received the citations, and there was no issue.
“Why is there such a large distinction between the two middle schools?” she said at the meeting. “They’re both seventh- and eighth-graders. She basically felt that it was victim blaming. How does that make her feel safe at school?”
In a phone interview with the West Orange Chronicle on Oct. 12, Wu said that neither she nor her daughter believe any rules were broken. Klemt was unable to respond to a request for comment by press time on Oct. 15. While Superintendent Scott Cascone said at the meeting that it was the first he’d heard of the incident and he would look into it further, he released a statement Oct. 11.
“I am a superintendent who strives to nurture an environment wherein all students and staff feel welcome, safe, comfortable and supported,” Cascone said in the statement. “When it comes to light that we have fallen short in our mission, what shall we do as a community? We shall not condemn, we shall not judge, we shall not cast out. I say, as a learning organization, let’s come together through honest and heartfelt dialogue, and let’s teach and grow. That is precisely the effort in which I lead. Constructive steps are already being taken on the part of the community, not to these ends, but better stated to these beginnings! The first step was taken on Monday night by a youngster and we will, as I find we sometimes do, take our cue from the children for whom we care.”
Members of the BOE and the student liaisons thanked Justice and her mother for coming to them at the meeting.
“Thank you for your courage,” BOE member Mark Robertson said. “Continue to be proud of who you are, because we are proud of who you are.”
Both student liaisons, Darlene Folas and Senay Dani, are LMS graduates. They both pointed out the problems with the dress code and how it’s enforced for different students.
“I didn’t really see much of an issue in elementary school, but once we entered middle school teachers started looking more strictly at it,” Dani said. “I don’t see how wearing things like Justice has promotes anything other than teachers pointing it out. From what she said, when the teacher pointed it out, it made more of an issue than when she was just there.”
Dani said the dress code should be adjusted to account for similar problems, and Folas concurred.
“This is a valid issue and I’m grateful that we’re in a community where we teach our kids their problems are valid and you can come to us,” Folas said. “We can’t ignore that policies have individuals behind them. As a student, how do you not feel targeted when you have a policy but there’s different interpretations between them? How do you not feel targeted when there’s inconsistencies with the way you were treated and in the response at another school?”
In a phone interview with the Chronicle on Oct. 12, Justice said her goal is to protect LGBTQ students in the district, rather than try to change the dress code.
“My goal isn’t to change the dress code,” she said. “It’s hard not to see it as victim blaming, since somehow it’s out fault if we’re targeted. But I’ve worn other shirts that are similar and haven’t been called out on it.”