Choice in wardrobe costs Russell senior her prom

For The Independent

FLATWOODS – In a few weeks, Jacqueline Duty will graduate from Russell High School. Like other future graduates everywhere, she’s savoring the special moments of her last year of high school.

Among the highlights was to be her senior prom, where she’d enter the decorated gymnasium wearing a dress she designed herself, to reflect who she is.

But instead of being greeted by her classmates Saturday as she walked in on the arm of her date, she was greeted outside the school by police officers and school officials — because of that choice in dresses.

The dress, bright red with criss-crossing of blue with white stars and edging, reflects her pride in her Southern heritage, Duty says. School officials, however, say the resemblance to the Confederate Stars and Bars flag was too close. So she was told that while she was welcome to attend the prom, she could not do so wearing that dress.

"It was a very difficult decision," said school superintendent Ronnie Back. "We don’t have a policy on these things; we decide them on a case-by-case basis. We decided it would be problematic if she wore it and made our decision."

That decision should have been earlier, says her mother, "Max" Duty.

"They called her into the office on Thursday (April 29) and told her she couldn’t go to the prom if she wore her dress," Mrs. Duty says. "She called me crying. She said she’d been told that if she wore the dress, she’d be suspended and not be allowed to graduate."

According to Jacqueline, she’d been talking about her dress for several weeks, just as the other girls going to the prom had been. Rumors began to circulate about the dress, she said, and several students and a teacher went to the principal to ask that she not wear it.

Mrs. Duty met with the high school principal, Sean Howard, Thursday after her daughter’s call, taking along a picture of the dress. She says she explained the reason Jacqueline chose that dress and that it differed little from the Dixie Outfitter shirts that her daughter wore regularly to school.

"Nothing I said made a difference," she said. "He told me the dress would be disruptive and so they didn’t want her to wear it. One of his statements was ‘I hope you don’t put your daughter in that position.’ It was like he was blaming me."

Mrs. Duty says her daughter had been planning to wear a Southern heritage-inspired dress to her senior prom since the eighth grade.

"That’s just her, it’s her heritage. It’s how she thinks," she says.

She says Howard didn’t tell her that Thursday that Jacqueline would be banned from the prom, but instead called early Friday morning.

"He gave us the ultimatum then," she says. "He said she can come to prom, but she can’t wear that dress."

Several area dress shops called to offer her another dress after the word spread, but Mrs. Duty said that wasn’t an option.

"Jacqueline can’t just wear a dress off the rack," she said. "If she’d gotten a different dress, it would have to have been altered and that can’t be done overnight.

"Besides, this was the dress she wanted to wear, and we hadn’t been told of any restrictions. All the handbook says is that formal wear is recommended. Every other girl got to wear what she wanted."

Despite the warning from the school, Jacqueline and her date put on their prom wear and drove to the school, accompanied by her parents and other family members and friends.

"The police were waiting when they got there, and so was Mr. Howard," Mrs. Duty said. "The police asked them to leave and then Mr. Howard told Jacqueline’s date to get out, and he leaned in the car and talked to her. I finally told the kids to back out to the sidewalk because that’s public property. They had their first and last dance of the prom there."

After a time, the couple and their entourage returned to the Duty home and had their own party.

The next test for Jacqueline was going to school on Monday morning.

"I didn’t know what people would be saying," she said. "Of course, there were a lot of rumors that were completely untrue. I heard that I’d been arrested and that I’d gotten into a fight with all the police, and all sorts of things."

The rumors extended to her parents as well, Mrs. Duty said. "My sister heard that my husband and I are members of the Ku Klux Klan," she said with a laugh.

She says being banned from the prom continues to affect her daughter.

"She says it doesn’t bother her, but her tears say otherwise," she said.

"What bothers me the most is how unfair it is. Jacqueline was singled out only because of her dress. She’s an honor student and a really good kid. She’s never been in trouble, never even been called to the principal’s office before last Thursday.

"As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t end here. Her First Amendment rights have been violated. This is America … we’re supposed to have freedom of speech. That applies to everyone."

And for Jacqueline, it was the tarnishing of her dream that hurt the worst.

"I’d worked two jobs to help pay for my dress, which was custom-made, because it was my last prom ever," she says. "If there were going to be restrictions, we should have known about it a long time before.

"Telling me two days out was just too late for me to wear another dress."

CATHIE SHAFFER is executive editor of The Greenup County News-Times.

If you have comments on the issue above, we urge you to contact the people below:
D. Sean Howard, Principal
Ronnie Back, Superintendent