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Uniontown Area considers discipline for players' 'I can't breathe' shirts

Renatta Signorini
| Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015, 11:34 p.m.
This shirt is similar to the tees worn by the Uniontown Area School District girls high school basketball team.
This shirt is similar to the tees worn by the Uniontown Area School District girls high school basketball team.

Uniontown Area School District officials are examining how to respond to members of the girls high school basketball team who wore controversial T-shirts onto the court before a game this week, according to school directors.

The black shirts were imprinted with white letters with the message, “I can't breathe,” directors said.

“I just don't think that was the time and place for such a political stunt,” Director Susan Clay said Thursday.

The words were the last spoken by Eric Garner, 43, an unarmed black man who was resisting arrest and put in a neckhold by police. He died July 17. A grand jury decided not to prosecute the white New York City officer on criminal charges in the death. The case has sparked protests and tension across the country, and the phrase “I can't breathe” has become a civil rights rallying cry.

The T-shirt message is an important one that needs to be kept in view, said Constance “Connie” Parker, president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the NAACP. She suggested the shirts could have been made in Uniontown's school colors.

“It's a message that shouldn't die and go away. ... But there are rules and regulations and different things you need to follow,” Parker said. “These young people are making statements now.”

According to state data, 17 percent of Uniontown high school students are black, and 78 percent are white.

About 15 spectators at the girls basketball game Thursday — adults and children — wore the shirts, including Harlan Davis, who noted that NFL and NBA players have worn them.

“I believe in freedom of speech. That's all this is,” he said of the girls' decision to wear the shirts. “It's not only about the girls. The reason is bigger than them.”

Tina Tucker, who was wearing the shirt, said the purpose was not to show disrespect for anyone, including police officers, but to pay homage to the memory of Garner.

“It's to pay homage to a man, his family and what's going on in the world,” Tucker said. “It's a whole movement.”

Coach Jason Winfrey and Superintendent Charles Machesky did not return messages seeking comment.

Several school directors said the warm-up before the Monday home game against rival Laurel Highlands was an inappropriate time for the Uniontown players to wear the T-shirts.

Clay said school officials received text messages and photos from spectators at the basketball game almost immediately. The team wears district-issued uniforms in the school's colors of maroon and white, she said.

Any school teams that want to wear something other than the uniform must get permission from administrators, she said.

“They were out of uniform,” Clay said. “At this point in time, we're still kind of looking at what we're going to do,” if anything.

“That kind of stuff is freedom of speech out on the street,” said Director Terry Dawson. “I think it would've been good if they would've run that by somebody first.”

First Amendment law experts said Thursday that student expression within a public school is protected free speech.

“Students don't lose their First Amendment rights when they walk through the schoolhouse door,” said St. Vincent College professor Bruce Antkowiak.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Washington-based Student Press Law Center, said the shirts are “awfully comparable” to black armbands worn by Iowa students in 1965 to protest the Vietnam War. Supreme Court decisions have upheld student expression in schools as a result of the armband case.

While the directors who were interviewed said they understand the free speech issue, the team represents the school district, they said.

“When you represent the school district in any capacity ... you are to conduct yourself respectably,” said Director Dorothy Grahek.

“They're free to express themselves. I just don't think a high school event is a proper venue for that.”

If district officials decide to discipline the team members, they must show that the act of wearing the shirts disrupted the educational function of the school or that the district is acting consistently with previous disciplinary action for others who wore items not part of the district-issued uniform, Antkowiak said.

“The school's authority begins when the students' speech is going to substantially disrupt” school operations, LoMonte said.

“It would be pretty hard for the school to surmount that threshold” if students wore shirts in a “peaceful and nonviolent protest,” he said.

The district has dealt with other incidents in which student groups wore clothing that was not part of their district-issued uniforms or in the school's colors, directors said, but they did not offer details.

In the state of California, a school district rescinded a ban last month on high school basketball players who wanted to wear similar “I can't breathe” T-shirts when the students threatened legal action, The Associated Press reported.

Players were permitted to wear the shirts during warm-ups for a basketball tournament.

Professional basketball players and the Notre Dame women's basketball team have worn “I can't breathe” shirts during warm-ups in recent weeks.

Renatta Signorini is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-837-5374 or rsignorini@tribweb.com.

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