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'V' Word Leads to Protest at Winona High School


Originally published in:
La Cross Tribune
05/05/2005

Shannon Fiecke / Lee Newspapers
WINONA, Minn. — As promised, student Carrie Rethlefsen and about 40 peers showed up at Winona Senior High School on Tuesday morning wearing controversial T-shirts that read "I ? MY VAGINA" and "I SUPPORT YOUR VAGINA."

Holding signs such as "Keep fighting until the violence stops" and "We respect authority," the group quietly assembled near the school flag pole. There were no speeches — just a one-page print-out explaining their cause, handed to students heading to class.

Shortly before school started, those wearing the banned T-shirts lined up before the front entrance, turning them inside out together. Two seniors — Rethlefesen and Katelyn Delvaux — did wear their "VAGINA" shirts into the school and were sent home for the day.

Students worked with principal Nancy Wondrasch to arrange a protest event that would be acceptable to both parties. Wondrasch said she was proud of how they conducted themselves.

"It went very smoothly," she said. "We were very pleased."

Rethlefsen, 18, purchased about 100 T-shirts after school administrators told her she could no longer wear her "I ª my vagina" button to school. Like the T-shirts, proceeds from the button assist abused women. Students say they wore the apparel to create awareness of violence toward women, and support Rethlefsen.

Despite the national attention paid to the issue, many WSHS students paid little attention to the T-shirt crowd before heading into school. Others declined the group's literature about sexual violence.

Some paused to ask how much a T-shirt cost: $6.

Most who participated in the rally said their parents supported them, others still hadn't told them.

Genie Adler, 15, suspected she would be grounded, but "it's worth it," she said, because she believes in standing up for women's rights.

Rethlefsen said she believes her point has been heard, and she doesn't plan to wear her shirt to school again today.

Though it appears the "I ª my vagina" logo is settled for now, Wondrasch said she hopes the issue of women's rights isn't.

The principal has talked with students about getting a group started on women's issues or putting up a table with resource materials in the concourse.

Rethlefsen plans to start a club after she returns from the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair later this month.

Tom Jacobs, author of a book for teens called "What Are My Rights?" and a former juvenile court judge, said he is glad to hear the school is attempting to make a compromise.

He said rulings nationwide on T-shirts with slogans have come down on both sides, weighing students' First Amendment rights against a school's responsibility to all students.

"(Rethlefsen) has certain rights, and so does the school," he said. "It's a balance."

Referring to the landmark Supreme Court decision, "Tinker v. Des Moines," Jacobs said students don't shed their rights at the classroom door.

In the Tinker case, the court upheld students' right to free speech by wearing black arm bands to protest the Vietnam War.

A message can't be restricted, but the way it is communicated can, Jacobs said.

For instance, when one female student wore the T-shirt "Drugs Suck," a court upheld the school's decision to ban it.

Junior Ashley Atkinson believes the school overreacted to the button issue, but she turned her shirt inside out before entering school.

"They're giving us this at least," she said. "In a way, can we ask for more?"

Atkinson hopes to help start a women's issues club at the high school. She has seen battered women enter the Women's Resource Center, where she works as a secretary.

"It is kind of an eye-opening experience — the stuff that happens even in this town," she said.

Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the Minnesota American Civil Liberties Union, said the argument WSHS is making that the button is disruptive to the educational process is a strong one.

"Courts are extremely reluctant to second guess administrators," he said.

But in this case, students went almost a month before anything was said about Rethlefsen's button.

"You have to wonder what caused the disruption," he said, students wearing buttons or the school's reaction.

Samuelson said the ACLU, "believe(s) this is a quintessential free speech issue, like Tinker vs. Des Moines."

He said his state organization takes roughly 75 cases a year, filing about a couple dozen, but it's willing to investigate the Winona incident further, if Rethlefsen cares to pursue it.

Rethlefsen said she talked with Samuelson on Tuesday, but hasn't decided what route she'll take.

School board Chairman Larry Laber said if Tuesday was a test of the school's dress code policy, "the policy passed in flying colors."

He said he was pleased with how students at the rally behaved and the "adult-like" manner in which Rethlefsen and Delvaux handled themselves.

"My hat is off to them," he said.

Shannon Fiecke is a reporter for the Winona Daily News. She can be reached at (507) 453-3519 or shannon.fiecke@winonadailynews.com.

Read the story from April 21:
I ? My Vagina, High School Students In Trouble For Wearing Button