Parent fights board over Obama shirt

COVINGTON - A parent of an Indian Creek Middle School eighth-grader is fighting the Newton County Board of Education after the school principal gave her son in-school suspension for wearing a Barack Obama T-shirt following the November election.

For weeks before the election, parent Eshe Riviears said her 13-year-old son Khyiah, as well as her other two children who attend Newton County public schools, wore shirts with a picture of President-Elect Obama on it and nobody at any of the schools said anything about it.

About 8:30 p.m. on election night, Riviears said she received a call from the school's automated phone messaging system at ICMS saying that students could not wear political clothing or pins of any kind for the rest of the week.

"It certainly wasn't limited to one candidate or party. This was done for safety reasons, as the district received several calls and e-mails from concerned parents who had heard rumors that an incident might take place in the days immediately after the election, no matter who won," said Sherri Viniard, director of public relations for the Newton County School System. "Some even asked if it was safe to send their children to school. The principal (Dr. Renee Mallard) made a proactive decision to reduce the likelihood of an incident taking place by asking that students not wear campaign paraphernalia to school after the election at least for the remainder of the week."

Riviears said she was concerned that the school did not send home this announcement in writing, as every parent does not always get those messages. Also, she was concerned that other schools were allowing students to wear the clothing and that the handbook does not prohibit such activities.

"The student handbook is so vague," Riviears said.

The day after the Nov. 4 election, Riviears sent her three children to their schools - the Indian Creek eighth-grader, an 11th-grader at Eastside High and a fifth-grader at Mansfield Elementary - wearing Obama buttons to celebrate the win.

"After school, (Khyiah) came home and gave me the Obama button in a shameful manner," Riviears said. "He said the school told him if he wears anything like that again that he will be kicked out of school."

Riviears said she was shocked from this reaction.

"When you win a basketball game, do you only celebrate the week after?" she said Monday. "Everybody is supposed to be able to say what they want to say without any fear of reprisal."

The next day, Riviears decided to take all of her children to ICMS to talk to school administrators about the problem. She had them all wear their Obama shirts and waited for the administrators.

While at the school, Riviears said she shared her concerns with the administrators, who she alleges told her that because the school is in the South, a lot of individuals were not happy with the outcome and many are treating it as a "black vs. white" issue. She said they told her that if her son continued to wears the Obama shirt at school that day, he either could turn it inside out, go home or go to in-school suspension.

Riviears told administrators that her son would wear the shirt that day and the next day, as well.

"We chose in-school suspension, so that the memories of this historic day would not be tainted with shame for our son," Riviears wrote the school board in a letter.

In December, Riviears spoke to the school board about the events and asked the board for an apology from ICMS staff, a school mock election, more educational discussion and a diversity and tolerance training day.

"I believe this is an opportunity for us to teach history and show good citizenship and sportsmanship," Riviears told the board. "In this case, that wasn't done. ... I think we missed a grand historic opportunity at this time."

The board didn't respond at the meeting, but after Riviears spoke to the school board, NCSS Superintendent Steven Whatley sent her a letter in response to her visit that thanked her for her concerns and informed her that the school was acting over concern for safety of the students.

"In an effort to heighten students' awareness of the electoral process and the unique elements of the campaigns and election, several activities took place in the days leading up to Election Day. Diversity is an integral part of the state curriculum, and Indian Creek faculty and staff take great care to provide a variety of activities that address and celebrate diversity and encourage tolerance," Whatley wrote in the letter. "It is always the intent of the Newton County School System to provide an environment that is safe, orderly and without distractions and/or disruptions that interfere with or undermine the learning process."

Riviears said this letter was not enough to settle her feelings.

"I am going to the (American Civil Liberties Union) and the (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People)," she said, adding that she also would take it to court if necessary. "It's disrespectful. ... This is an historical moment and the kids need to be educated."

She also started a petition, located at www.petitiononline.com/ObamaT/petition.html, to bring more awareness to the issue; as of Monday, it had 267 signatures from individuals in a variety of locations.

"People need to do things about them when they are happening," Riviears said. "This whole thing is an aberration."

Michelle Floyd can be reached at michelle.floyd@newtoncitizen.com.