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Reno school district sued over student’s pro-gun T-shirt

CARSON CITY — A Reno eighth-grader says his First Amendment rights were violated after a teacher told him to cover up his pro-gun T-shirt, according to a federal civil rights lawsuit filed Tuesday.

On March 12, the student at Kendyl Depoali Middle School in Reno, identified in the lawsuit by the initials G.M., was told by a teacher to remove or cover up his shirt because it violated the school district’s dress code, according to the complaint.

The lawsuit, which names the middle school and the Washoe County School District as defendants, says that was a violation of the student’s freedom of speech.

The school district said the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Reno, came as a surprise Tuesday.

“The District was served the lawsuit this morning without warning. We are looking into the allegations at this time. As a result, we cannot provide any further information,” school district spokesman Charles Rahn said in a statement.

The case comes amid recent protests as part of the National School Walkout, where students from across the nation have walked out of classrooms in a call for gun reform. The protests were sparked by the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Feb. 14, in which a 19-year-old walked into the school with an AR-15-style rifle and shot and killed 17 people, including 14 students.

The T-shirt case is not the first freedom of speech issue to crop up in Reno amid the gun violence protests.

Last month, a Reno high school student was suspended after calling Nevada Rep. Mark Amodei’s office during the March 14 nationwide walkout and expressing his anger over inaction on behalf of Congress on gun control. The school district eventually overturned the two-day suspension.

In the more recent case, the boy’s shirt depicted images similar to the Gadsden Flag, including a coiled snake and the words “Don’t tread on me.” It also included “Firearm Policy Coalition,” a pro-gun rights political group, as well as “2A,” meant to stand for the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, according to the complaint.

The school district dress code prohibits any clothing with “sexual overtones, or anything that promotes firearms, alcohol, drugs, tobacco, gang membership, or violence.”

The lawsuit claims that the student’s shirt did not depict firearm images and that the student was wearing it to comment on a national debate about a serious issue and to voice support for constitutional rights, including the right to bear arms under the Second Amendment.

The lawsuit does not say that the student was formally disciplined, but rather that he covered his shirt with a sweatshirt and hasn’t worn the shirt to school since because he’s afraid of “further discipline.”

“Public schools may not violate the civil rights of pro-gun rights students because they don’t like the Second Amendment or people who support the fundamental, individual human right to armed self-defense,” said Brandon Combs, chairman of Firearm Policy Foundation and president of Firearm Policy Coalition.

Holly Welborn, policy director for the the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, which often handles First Amendment violation cases, said students generally “can wear expressive clothing in the schoolhouse as long is it doesn’t cause a serious or substantial disruption in the classroom.”

Contact Colton Lochhead at clochhead@reviewjournal.com or 775-461-3829. Follow @ColtonLochhead on Twitter.

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