Student Punished for ‘Gang Related’ T-Shirt Purchased at Kohl’s

Though t outfit 12-year old Dustin Cole wore to school wasn’t too revealing or too form-fitting, and didn’t allegedly promote violence or controversy, school officials still cracked down on it — declaring the seventh grader’s American-flag-themed Kohl’s T-shirt “gang related,” and issuing him a dress-code violation. 

High School Teacher Publicly Shames Student for Dress Code Violation

“He said he was ‘dress coded’ at school because the stars were gang related,“ Cole’s mother, Lori Carpenter, told Fox 40 about the principal’s Oct. 20 reprimand at Yuba Gardens Intermediate school in Olivehurst, Calif. The principal requested that the honor student turn his tee inside out for the remainder of the day. "I mean, they are trying to keep everybody safe. I understand,” Carpenter said, “but it feels like it is a little too far. Especially when it is a patriotic shirt.”  

Dustin Cole (Photo: KTXL)

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Carpenter didn’t respond to Yahoo Parenting’s request for comment, but in another interview she told the Appeal Democrat that she was irked because her son — who, the mom maintains, does not belong to a gang — is “a star student but he can’t wear a star.”

Dustin Cole’s mother, Lori Carpenter (Photo: KTXL)

The star on Cole’s shirt, though, is one of the symbols that school officials have banned at school. As the Yuba Gardens Intermediate School’s code of conduct reads: “Due to the highly changeable nature of gang-associated clothing, the administration reserves the right to declare any clothing, accessory, colors of specific items of clothing, signs, and graffiti which has been identified as associated with gangs, as off-limits on the school premises.”

“Our local gang task force, they identify colors, they identify designs, they identify all of the things that we should be aware of,” Ramiro Carreon, Assistant Superintendent at Marysville Joint Unified School District (within which Yuba Gardens falls) told Fox 40. He noted that the red star on the top right of Cole’s shirt is associated with the Norteño gang, reportedly the largest street gang in the area, known for gang activity. “That design has been associated with gangs in the past, and we cannot just turn a blind eye to that.” 

Yuba County Sheriff’s Department gang unit detective Ben Martin explained to the Appeal Democrat that the “31” printed inside the red star on Cole’s shirt also added fuel to the fire. Despite the fact that the “31″ signifies California, the 31st state, Martin described how gangs can use it as an identifier since he says that the inverse, “13,” is used by the Sureño gang. "I wouldn’t say that (California’s Bear Flag) is necessarily gang attire itself,” Martin said, “but if you put it with one or two elements it could become gang attire." 

With 35 percent of middle school students (and 45 percent of high school students) reporting that gangs are present in their schools, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Gang Intelligence Center, little things like shirts and sweatshirts can be a big deal. 

“On the surface, it’s sad and pathetic that these are the types of things administrators have to consider. But the reality is that what these administrators are saying is not unheard of,” National School Safety and Security Services’ President Kenneth Trump tells Yahoo Parenting about Cole’s shirt trouble. “The smarter school officials and law enforcement have gotten about recognizing the signifiers of gangs — like wearing a colorful bandana hanging out of your back pocket — the more subtle gangs have gotten with the way that they represent themselves.” 

Trump, who has worked on anti-gang task forces in public schools, says that he’s seen gang signifiers as low profile as adopting a color of jersey, a sports team, pants leg rolled up on a particular side, specific brands of shoes, colors of shoes, and even the way shoelaces are tied or eyebrows are trimmed. “So when school officials take action on very specific clothing, it’s likely that they’re doing so based on specific documented evidence that there’s a trend and pattern regarding that clothing,” he explains.

And while Cole appears to be the victim in this incident of dress-code violation, Trump contends that administrators were actually protecting him. “Even if the child is legitimately not involved in a gang, if there are other gangs in the school community who see what he is wearing, they may assume that he is representing as a member of that gang,” he says, “and that may put him at risk if a rival gang member sees his shirt and jumps him because of what he is wearing.” 

The identifiers that gangs adopt — shirts, accessories, and such — are used “to intimidate and send the message that they have dominance in and control that school,” Trump explains. “And that’s obviously not the message that officials want to send, because it instills fear for kids not involved. It’s an intimidation tactic by gangs to say, ‘We rule this place.’”

(Top photo: KTXL)

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