School District Sued After Teacher Booted Girl From Class

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A school district found itself in hot water after a high school teacher booted a female from class over her shirt, following a lesson on student rights. After the girl received a suspension, her mother sued, hoping to teach the school a lesson of its own.

Janet Bristow
Janet Bristow claims her daughter’s rights were violated at Johnston High School. (Photo Credit: Google Maps)

Janet Bristow, the mother of an Iowa high school student identified as “A.B.” in court documents, filed a federal lawsuit against the Johnston Community School District and several individuals on behalf of her daughter, alleging that a suspension the girl received violated her First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The complaint was made after Bristow’s daughter was suspended by her high school for wearing a “pro-gun” T-shirt to her government class, which her teacher apparently didn’t appreciate.

Two days after A.B.’s government teacher, identified as Tom Griffin, covered a lesson on students’ free speech rights, A.B. decided to walk into Griffin’s classroom in a pro-Second Amendment shirt featuring a rifle, according to the complaint. The high school senior’s shirt read, “What part of ‘shall not be infringed’ do you not understand?” Apparently, there was a reason for A.B.’s wardrobe choice, and it had to do with Griffin’s prior lesson.

Janet Bristow
A.B.’s shirt (Photo Credit: Court Documents)

During Griffin’s government class lesson on the First Amendment, the teacher allegedly told the class that “although they had some right to free speech, that right was ‘extremely limited’ when the students stepped on school property.” According to Griffin, it was up to the teacher to decide what was acceptable speech — including messages on clothing — in the classroom. He then told his students that he would not permit any clothing depicting guns, alcohol, or any other “inappropriate material.”

After listening to Griffin’s lesson, A.B. determined that the government teacher had erred in his assessment. Contrary to Griffin’s lesson, the 1969 landmark SCOTUS ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines cemented students’ rights to free speech in public schools, affirming that students and teachers do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

Stock image for visual representation only. (Photo Credit: Pixabay)

With clothing at the heart of the Tinker case, A.B. decided to wear the shirt in question, which her mother says A.B. and her older brother had both worn to school previously without incident. Griffin, of course, had a problem with the shirt and booted A.B. from his class, sending her to administration. Soon afterward, Bristow arrived to discuss the issue with Nate Zittergruen and Randy Klein, both associate principals, and Ryan Woods, the school’s principal.

After Bristow was told that the shirt could be perceived as threatening or offensive, the administrative team gave A.B. the choice to either change her shirt or face suspension. A.B. refused to change her shirt. Chris Billings, the district’s executive director of school leadership, supported the administration, claiming that the shirt violated the school dress code. So, A.B. was issued an out-of-school suspension, according to The Blaze. However, it would seem the school figured out a little too late that they had made a big mistake.

Alan Ostergren, the attorney for A.B. and Janet Bristow (Photo Credit: Screenshot)

Later that evening, Bristow received an apology from Superintendent Laura Kacer as well as Billings, who admitted that he had come to the realization that the shirt is “political speech.” Although Bristow was grateful for the apologies, she didn’t feel the issue was adequately resolved since Griffin hadn’t apologized or clarified the lesson for the class. Making matters worse, Bristow argued that Griffin was “not the ordinary teacher when it comes to knowing and understanding students’ rights to free speech under the U.S. Constitution.”

Rather, Griffin is an expert in constitutional rights, also working as an adjunct professor of government and history at two nearby colleges. He was named a James Madison Fellow for his exceptional high school teaching of the Constitution and even published articles on First Amendment law, according to Law & Crime. So, Griffin should have known the protections owed to A.B. Instead, he hasn’t apologized or clarified the issue with his class, leaving the impression that “A.B. was wrong and that her opinions were not welcome in the classroom.”

Because of this and the fact that the suspension was still listed on A.B.’s school record, Janet Bristow sued the teacher, the principal, and the district, seeking “affirmation that clothing featuring firearms ‘in a non-threatening, non-violent manner’ is protected under the First Amendment; a permanent injunction which will prevent the defendants listed in the lawsuit from ever restricting such clothing again in the future; and compensation for damages, the costs associated with the legal process, and any other ‘relief’ the court deems ‘appropriate.'”

It’s troubling when the “experts,” teaching future generations, either don’t understand the Constitution or completely disregard it. If A.B.’s shirt is making a “political statement,” it is protected speech. One would think that quoting the Second Amendment is indeed “political speech” — a fact the administration even acknowledged. Sadly, it was too little too late, and an entire class was taught that their rights are limited in the classroom, even though the SCOTUS had said otherwise.