WALDOBORO, Maine — Harley Campbell’s great-grandmother died of breast cancer, so when the teenager found a breast cancer awareness bracelet for sale she bought it as a little remembrance. Two weeks later the senior was kicked out of Medomak Valley High School for three days because of her bracelet, which has the words “I [heart] boobies” printed on its rubbery face.
A school principal called Campbell out of second-period English class, where she was working on a “Beowulf” project, to ask her to take the bracelet off, saying it was offensive and distracting. Campbell said no.
“It’s a morality thing. I feel like I have to do it. It’s the right thing to do to fight for the right to support this big of a cause,” she said. “I know people who have died from [breast cancer]. It’s not just people on TV saying they survived. We have teachers in school who are suffering from stage four breast cancer.”
According to Campbell and several other students in the school, at least three students have been suspended from the Waldoboro high school for wearing the Keep-A-Breast Foundation bracelets. More may have received in-school punishments for their accessories.
Medomak Valley High School Principal Harold Wilson wouldn’t say how many students were suspended, when they were suspended or for how long, but he did say there were fewer than five suspensions.
“They’re disruptive to the education process,” Wilson said about the bracelets worn in school.
Students started wearing the rubbery bracelets last spring and when asked to remove them, most students do, Wilson said. He said the students who were suspended did not respect administrators’ requests to put away the bracelets.
“Most students will put them in their pocket. Sometimes students will refuse, then you send them home for the day.”
The “I [heart] boobies” bracelets are a national issue. Students across the country have sued their school districts by claiming their constitutional right to free speech has been infringed. Earlier this year in Pennsylvania, a federal judge ordered a high school district to allow its students to wear the bracelets after two girls filed a lawsuit when they were told not to wear them.
The Maine Civil Liberties Union called the situation and the principal’s arguments identical to the Pennsylvania lawsuit.
“The judge in Pennsylvania found this was not lewd or vulgar and students had the right to wear these bracelets. Students who are choosing to advocate for breast cancer awareness should not be censored,” said MCLU executive director Shenna Bellows.
However, for principal Wilson, it comes down to basic school dress code rules: nothing with sexual connotations.
“One thing we’ve been accused of is not supporting breast cancer awareness and research,” he said. “That’s totally false.”
School officials instead want to direct students’ positive energy into other channels that don’t break the dress code — as occurred with this year’s homecoming.
“Last weekend at homecoming all our soccer girls wore pink socks and ribbons in their hair. We had it approved by the Maine Principals’ Association because it was a varsity game,” Wilson said. “Even Coach [Larry] Jensen had pink in his hair for breast cancer awareness.”
But, according to the Maine Civil Liberties Union, the school shouldn’t tell the students how to express themselves.
“The school can’t tell students what to say or how to speak. Telling students how to say something is just as much censorship as telling them not to speak at all. They have the freedom to choose their own words,” Bellows said.
The American Civil Liberties Union takes on legal cases like this daily and any student or parent interested in fighting Medomak’s rule should call the Maine branch of the organization, Bellows said.
At least one parent is considering it. Lauri Naum is the parent of 17-year-old A.J. Naum, who is a senior at the school. A.J. wears his bracelet every day and every day he is told to remove it. On Wednesday he was taken out of class for wearing his bracelet and told to flip it inside out, so it looked blank. He did. According to Naum, the school keeps threatening A.J. with suspension.
“I told them to suspend him if that’s the case. It’s his choice whether to wear it or not,” his mother said.
A.J. explained that he continues to wear his bracelet despite the scoldings from school because for him, it’s personal. A close family friend, someone he calls his “second mom,” is fighting breast cancer for the second time. It has spread to her brain and liver this time. Also, his grandmother died of the disease.
“It means a lot to me that it means so much to him to do this,” said A.J.’s mother. “This was never an issue. The school is making it an issue.”