Eve Meelan bought purple laces for her green Doc Martens to make a fashion statement. But when the fifteen-year-old freshman set boot on the campus of Smoky Hill Senior High School last week, she found her laces tied to the First Amendment.
Dean of Students Cathy Brondos told the surprised Meelan to take her Doc Martens home. The dress code at the Aurora school prohibits any color laces but black on those steel-toed work boots favored by people of a hardcore bent. It is well known that white supremacist skinheads use white as well as red laces to make statements of hatred against minorities, Meelan says Brondos told her. In an attempt to short-circuit trouble in the halls, school administrators have banned all colored laces.
She'd been wearing the purple-laced Martens for four months, without incident, until a security guard noticed them May 3 and reported her. That didn't sit right with the rebel in Meelan, who also sports a double mohawk--which is allowed under the rules. "I think anything that infringes on the rights of expression of anybody, regardless of age, is wrong," she says. "It doesn't hold up against the Constitution and it doesn't hold up against my own convictions." She wasn't going to conform to something that violated the First Amendment, particularly something so obviously irrelevant--no one knew of any untoward message signified by purple laces. They stood out nice and skanky against green Doc Martens. That's all. Eve Meelan followed her feet home, determined to stand on principle.
Brondos didn't return phone calls, but Smoky Hill assistant principal Harry Bull explains that the Doc lace law was based on information about skinhead fashion trends provided by the Aurora police gang unit and confirmed by student members of the school's Dress Code Committee, which recommends apparel policy to the administration.
"The purpose [of the lace rule] is to stop students from coming into the building and conveying messages of hatred to other students," says Bull. And given the quickly changing teen fashion scene, he adds, "rather than trying to delineate what colors are appropriate and what colors are not appropriate, we have assumed the position that if you are going to wear Doc Martens, whatever color they are, that you will wear the same color shoelaces."
Bull insists that the school "is not attempting to control every little article of clothing. We try hard not to nitpick and make things extremely difficult and create confusion with students. And I think we've accomplished that."
Actually, nothing in the Smoky Hill code demands matching boots and laces; the rules prohibit any color laces but black on Doc Martens. But if the purpose of the rule is to stop students from spreading hate, Bull has an ally, not a foe, in Eve Meelan, she contends.
"I abhor what neo-Nazi skinheads stand for," she says. "I object to their violence and their hatred. I don't like any form of racism or bias."
Where she and administrators part company is over the question of skinheads' rights to express their views. To Eve Meelan, it's a free country, one that includes high schools. "I would stand up for their freedom of speech," she says.
Mary Gill, executive director of secondary education for the Cherry Creek School District, says the Smoky Hill dress code does not conflict with the Constitution. "Believe me," she says, "in these large high schools, we check these things before we put them in our student handbooks. All of the colored laces that are not black are put-downs of one group or another, either homosexuals or different ethnic groups. In school we are trying to promote the understanding and appreciation of each other, not put-downs. In our schools, everyone is safe from those kind of put-downs or any harassment or intimidation."
But those whom Smoky Hill administrators rely upon for the latest in gang wear say only two lace colors harbor meaning for area skinheads. White stands for white supremacy, says Sergeant Tim Genaro, supervisor of the Aurora Police Department's gang unit. Red laces convey neo-Nazi sentiments, he adds. Purple laces mean...purple.
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That information didn't help Eve Meelan. She was kicked out of school until she agreed to yank the purple laces from her boots. After two days of mulling it over, she returned to class late last week, but not because she'd seen the wisdom of her elders' thinking; she didn't want to end up in juvenile court on a truancy charge. She says she intends to pursue the bootlace issue with school authorities. As a sign of protest, she's wearing her purple laces on her jacket.
Eve Meelan is certain that changing a skinhead's laces isn't going to change his thinking. "Whether everybody is wearing red shoelaces or black shoelaces or white shoelaces, they'll still have the exact same feelings they always had," she says. "And I don't think forfeiting my freedom of speech is going to help in any way the greater good." Meelan's mother, Maureen Leaderer, apparently supports her right to choose a stand. "It's Eve's battle to fight," says Leaderer. "I can really see both sides, but it's her decision."
For her part, Mary Gill says she respects a rebellious streak in high schoolers. "I think it's very important for their development into responsible citizens," she says. "They push the rules as hard as they can. They want to know why. And I think it's incumbent on the adults to say, `This is why.'"
Eve Meelan heard why, and it sounded a lot stranger than purple bootlaces.