Students at a Jacksonville, Fla., high school say they’ve been banned from wearing “memorial attire”—that is, clothes or jewelry honoring a deceased love one—because local officials believe the commemorations are tied to “gang activity.”
According to News4Jax, students at Robert E. Lee High School (of course) were reminded on Wednesday that they couldn’t wear anything with “RIP” on it. A similar story ran on Action News Jacksonville, with students and their parents saying they feared they would get in trouble for wearing any attire memorializing their dead loved ones.
One student told Action News, “we’re not allowed to wear any RIP shirts, necklaces, rings, anything RIP-related.”
“It said we can’t wear them. Basically, no necklaces, none of that,” said Lee High School senior Jarod Mills about the announcement. “They don’t feel it’s appropriate for the school.”
But a spokesperson for Duval County Public Schools told Action news the policy doesn’t apply to all memorial attire—in fact, it’s intended to apply specifically to gang activity.
Spokesperson Laureen Ricks outlined Duval County policy:
Gang-affiliated clothing and paraphernalia is unacceptable. Specific examples – including readily-identifiable gang colors and gang-related memorial tributes — are prohibited.
The policy was informed by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, the school says.
Ironically, the incident that drew renewed attention to Lee High School’s “memorial wear” ban highlights why such policies are problematic and racist—and outright cruel. The school’s announcement comes on the heels of a high-profile incident at a county fair in which a black teen was kicked out for wearing a necklace that bore the image of his deceased mother.
As Yahoo News reports, four police officers escorted the teen and his friend out of the Jacksonville Fair on Nov. 3 after he refused to tuck in a necklace memorializing his mother. As with Duvall County Public Schools, a spokeswoman claimed the dress policy was made at the behest of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office because “it’s associated with bad behavior.”
From Yahoo News:
Though the teen’s identity is not being revealed, [his mentor Amy Donofrio] confirmed that he is definitely not affiliated with gang activity. In fact, she says, he’s a member of the Evac Movement, a community Donofrio founded to bring together at-risk youth (she calls them “at-hope”) with the intention of “channeling painful personal tragedies into positive change.” And as such, the teens are empowered as youth leaders — a group even met with President Barack Obama during his tenure — and often participate in roundtable discussions with police. The teen in question, she tells Yahoo Lifestyle, “has a working relationship with the head of the gang unit” at JSO...
One of the officers then approached the boys and asked one to pull up his pants, she says. He then turned to the teen in question and ordered him to tuck in the memorial necklace, which bears a photo of his mother. “He said, ‘Sir, I’m not going to tuck it in. It’s my mother and I have a legal right to wear it,” Donofrio says. She claims the ban on memorial gear was not part of any dress code policy she or the boys were aware of at the time, and that the policy that was later brought to her attention states those who wear memorial jewelry will be denied entry.
To our knowledge, the fair has yet to offer a refund to the two boys (Donofrio says a fair representative told her they’d think about it). And the apology Jacksonville Fair spokesperson Hart gave to Yahoo News focuses more on perceived hurt feelings than it does on amending a policy that is actively racist.
Because there’s the thing: It’s impossible to get away from the racial element of any ban on memorial attire. As Jasmine Sanders wrote for the New York Times, while the act of memorializing loved ones on clothing is nebulous, it has deep roots throughout the African diaspora (not only are airbrushed T-shirts are a hallmark of hip-hop culture, Sanders writes, but one researcher attributed memorial clothing to a West African tradition “in which mourners carried handkerchiefs, scarves and other ephemera bearing the names and faces of their dead”).
But Jacksonville officials don’t see a deeply important rite of mourning and remembrance: They see pathology. They see gang activity. And the ask here—one that is deeply cruel, though not at all unusual—is to trust a school named for a Confederate general to use a policy made with black students in mind and just hope they won’t be racist with it. To somehow muster this trust despite all we know about the ways black students are disproportionately targeted and punished within American schools; despite all we know about how dress codes in particular contribute to this overzealous penalizing; despite the ways in which this particular school and this particular sheriff’s office have actively worked to demonize black mourning, which is to demonize a fundamental, essential demonstration of black humanity.
Because here’s what’s missed: Somewhere, there’s a black child who lost his mother, who will mourn her for the rest of his life. Who—upon being confronted by people ostensibly responsible for ensuring his safety—refused to hide her away, because to do so for the sake of an arbitrary rule was unconscionable. And he was told he was wrong for that.
For the students of Jacksonville, it’s some education indeed.