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High school bans t-shirts, demonstrations after response to Day of Silence

MORRIS — Morris Area High School has banned t-shirts with two slogans — "Loud and Proud" and "Look Beyond" — after student demonstrations turned disruptive last Friday, April 15.

On Wednesday, Morris Area High School Principal Bill Kehoe announced the decision to ban the specific slogans on shirts or other clothing at school and school-sponsored activities.

"We will not tolerate demonstrations or any conduct by any student or groups of students that disrupts the school environment or puts the safety or well-being of students at risk," Kehoe said in a statement read over the intercom at the end of the school day.

Morris Area Superintendent Rick Lahn said the district's decision is designed to keep students safe.

"We have a right and responsibility to maintain a safe and orderly environment at school, and the school district will exercise that right to keep students safe and secure while they're at school," said Lahn.

The t-shirt demonstrations arose around the Day of Silence, a student-led national event where students remain silent for the day in an effort to draw attention to the effect of bullying and harassment of members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Members of the Morris Area Gay Straight Alliance were participating in the Day of Silence on Friday, many wearing shirts that said "Look Beyond."

On the same day, approximately 50 students arrived at school wearing shirts that said "Loud and Proud." The dark blue shirts had an image of an American flag and a pickup truck on the front.

At the end of the day, a district staff member called the Morris Police Department who came to the school to "disband" students gathered in the parking lot and offer help "getting kids home safely that day," Lahn said.

The district was aware of the GSA student's plan to participate in the Day of Silence, but was unaware of the students who planned to wear the "Loud and Proud" shirts, Lahn said.

Lahn said the students were allowed to wear the shirts, but some participants engaged in "inappropriate conduct" near the end of the day. Those instances are currently under investigation by the district.

"They have every right to wear those shirts — when they came into the building they weren't violating any of the school rules," said Lahn. "The problem was not the t-shirts they were wearing ... it was the behavior of some of the students wearing the t-shirt that we had issue with."

At the Morris Area School Board's meeting on Monday evening, parent Sylke Boyd said her daughter — a student member of the GSA participating in the Day of Silence — came home "distraught and upset" over other students who "grouped up and were shouting at the people wearing the Day of Silence shirts."

In taking action to mitigate the conflict between students, Boyd said she hoped the district would look to the incident as a "teachable moment."

"My concern is that the polarization becomes worse, that it goes from shouting and group forming to something worse — I would like not to see that," said Boyd. "I would like to see something that helps these young people ... to find a way to constructively still communicate."

In an interview, Lahn said he expected the investigation into the incident to take some time — "We're doing the best we can but it's like peeling an onion — as we peel it we find out there are more accusations and more finger-pointing and it's our responsibility to investigate all of those matters."

The prohibitions on specific shirts and student demonstrations "will remain in effect until further notice," Kehoe said.