Justice Cillo-Smith is a student at Liberty Middle School in West Orange, New Jersey. When she wore her new yellow T-shirt to school on Sept. 25, she didn’t expect to be the topic of the school district’s next Board of Education meeting — let alone land in the news. She just liked the T-shirt based on “The Prom,” a musical about a lesbian who isn’t allowed to bring her girlfriend to prom.
Cillo-Smith’s T-shirt reads “We’re All Lesbians” on the front and “Prom For Everyone” on the back. Cillo-Smith told NBC on “Today” that she purchased the T-shirt because “I am a lesbian, and the musical was wonderful and made me cry.”
But by second period during the day she wore the shirt, Cillo-Smith found herself in the principal’s office.
School administrators told her that her shirt violated the dress code, which bans “articles of clothing that contain references to illegal substances, sexual innuendos, inappropriate language and pictures, sayings or symbols that show affiliation to hate groups, gangs or demeaning messages directed towards any individual group or association.”
The shirt also allegedly violated the school’s ban on clothing that is “dangerous and/or disruptive to the learning environment.”
The middle schooler was told she had to change her shirt before returning to class, and her mother, Gwen Wu, was called. Wu was upset, posted about the incident on Facebook and made plans to attend the next board of education meeting.
Wu told “Today” her initial reaction was “one of great displeasure and disappointment in the school’s policy.” She added, “The principal told me that it was disruptive to the learning environment as she could be targeted for the shirt because middle school students weren’t as accepting as students in the high school and that he was in fact ‘protecting her’ by making her remove the shirt.”
West Orange Superintendent Scott Cascone said the West Orange public school district “strives for a learning environment where all are special, all are welcome and all are celebrated.”
At the board meeting, Cillo-Smith said of her school’s response, “My initial reaction was anger, and it made me feel that they had a bias against me for being openly lesbian.” She also said another student in the district, a friend who attends Roosevelt Middle School, wore the same T-shirt on Oct. 2 and was not reprimanded.
Minutes from the meeting indicate strong support for Wu and Cillo-Smith, who attended wearing the T-shirt. Both members of the board and student liaisons referred to Cillo-Smith’s courage.
On her Facebook page, Wu wrote after the meeting, in part, “My heart is full after the board ... expressed how proud and greatly supportive they are of [Justice’s] courage and confidence,” adding, “So far this is progress, and hopefully we can bring about acceptance and support to all students, especially those ones who might feel invalidated due to their identities!”
Cascone said in a statement, “I am a superintendent who strives to nurture an environment wherein all students and staff feel welcome, safe, comfortable and supported. When it comes to light that we have fallen short in our mission, what shall we do as a community? We shall not condemn, we shall not judge, we shall not cast out. I say, as a learning organization, let’s come together through honest and heartfelt dialogue, and let’s teach and grow. That is precisely the effort in which I lead. Constructive steps are already being taken on the part of the community, not to these ends, but better stated to these beginnings! The first step was taken on Monday night by a youngster, and we will, as I find we sometimes do, take our cue from the children for whom we care.”
Wu said, “We hope that the school district on a whole becomes much more inclusive and that all children can feel safe and comfortable being unapologetically themselves.”
On Oct. 17, friends of Cillo-Smith handed out paper sheets that read, “We’re All Lesbians.” Members of the school community pinned them to their shirts to wear in solidarity. The students were not cited for the show of solidarity with Cillo-Smith.
Cillo-Smith told “Today” she hopes her story encourages others to be more accepting. “I hope people learn that it’s not OK to discriminate against LGBTQ children and that you can’t just respect what people in power say because they could be wrong.”
She said, “It’s important to stand up for your own rights, even if you have to go against everything the school is telling you.”