East Windsor teen suspended over Confederate flag shirt, mom says school is wrong

Monday, November 14, 2011
Lisa Coryell/For The Times

EAST WINDSOR — A Kreps Middle School parent who says her daughter was suspended for wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the image of the confederate flag says the school overstepped its boundaries and violated her daughter’s right to free speech.

Jane West says she’s thinking about withdrawing her daughter, Torri Albrecht, from the school even as district officials insist that the flag — viewed by many as a racially charged symbol — was not the reason the girl was suspended.

“They’re saying that now because they know they really went too far this time,” West said. “If there wasn’t a problem with the sweatshirt, why did the vice principal call at 10 after 8 on Monday to demand that I bring a change of clothes for my daughter?”

“He told me he had a bunch of students and a bunch of teachers come into his office to say they were disturbed by it,” she said.

West said she told the assistant principal, Jermaine Blount, he was crazy if he thought she was coming out with a change of clothes for the eighth-grader.

“The Indian kids wear their turbans. The Jewish kids wear their yarmulkes. That’s their birthright,” she said. “I told him that Torri was born in Virginia. That flag is her heritage and I’m not telling her to take it off. He said ‘I guess she’ll have to suffer the consequences.’”

West said before heading to the school she called her daughter’s cell phone to tell her not to follow any orders to turn the sweatshirt inside out.

When she got to the school she was told that her daughter had been given a one-day suspension, she said.

No stranger to run-ins with school administrators at Kreps over issues involving her daughter, West said she’d had enough. She told her daughter to clean out her locker because she wasn’t coming back to school.

District Superintendent Edward Forsthoffer III disputed West’s account.

“No student was suspended for wearing an inappropriate shirt,” he said. He declined to say why Albrecht was suspended, citing student confidentiality policies.

Speaking in generalities, he said the district has a dress code that bans any clothing that causes a substantial disturbance in school.

“We’d rather be proactive than reactive,” he said. “Ninety-nine times out of 100, when asked, students say ‘OK, I’ll change.’ Some want to make an issue of it for ulterior motives. If there’s defiance involved, if there’s profanity involved (in the refusal to change clothing), certainly we’d have to respond appropriately.”

The battle flag of Confederate forces in the Civil War is widely regarded as one of the most controversial symbols from American history. Many see it as a symbol of racism while others consider it a part of familial and cultural heritage.

West says she and her daughter are in the latter group.

“We are so far from prejudiced,” she said. “My older daughter is biracial. For Torri this was about expressing herself. It was about saying ‘I’m from the South and I’m proud of it.’ She didn’t do it to cause hurt feelings.”

Furthermore, she said, the sweatshirt could not have caused a disturbance in the 10 minutes Albrecht wore it before being escorted to the office at the start of the school day. Albrecht herself said no one commented on the shirt.

Courts have upheld the right of schools to prohibit the display of Confederate flags on school property, but both Forsthoffer and West agree that the East Windsor district is pushing that issue.

The superintendent said no ban was ever issued. West says Kreps Principal Lori Stein called her the day after the suspension to say the school had changed its stance.

“She said that after careful consideration she decided that if Torri wears the sweatshirt, it might not be liked but that (Stein) would look the other way and allow her to wear it,” West said.

She’s not sure she’ll accept that solution, she said.

West said she plans to send Albrecht to Virginia to live with her sister in December but doesn’t know what to do in the meantime, since Kreps is the only middle school in the district. She said she’s considering home-schooling the girl until she can make the move south.

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