PATTERSON -- Remoni Tufono's favorite T-shirt bears the image of a smiling President Obama and the words "HI haters."
The 10-year-old boy, a fourth-grader at Northmead Elementary School in Patterson, has worn the shirt to class several times since the school year began in August, said his mother, Deminica Tufono.
It never caused a problem or drew an objection, she said -- until Monday.
A resource specialist, unsure of whether the shirt was appropriate to wear to school, sent Remoni to the office. He was instructed to call his mother and have her bring another.
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Inappropriate? Mom thinks not. The essence of the shirt's message to Obama's detractors is, "Get used to me. I'm the president."
When she bought it for her son, she interpreted it as a novelty shirt about tolerance.
"I bought it, I think, at JC Penney," Deminica Tufono said. "I'm a very responsible parent. Hate is a realistic word. My son is black, Samoan, Hawaiian and Filipino. I use it to motivate him to do more. We should be teaching our children not to hate anyone."
She believes that by telling her son to get another shirt, the teacher deprived him of his free speech rights.
So when does a message cross the line on a school campus?
In 1969, three high school students in Des Moines, Iowa, talked about wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. School board members got wind of the plan and banned the armbands. The students wore them anyway and were suspended.
The incident evolved into Tinker v. Des Moines, a case that ultimately reached the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 7-2 ruling, the court determined that a message -- whether it be on a shirt or sign or whatever -- would have to be provocative enough to cause a disturbance to merit prohibiting a student from displaying it on a public campus.
That decision became the standard for decisions at many schools ever since.
Phil Alfano, Patterson Unified's assistant superintendent for human resources, put it more succinctly. He said Remoni Tufono's shirt "doesn't rise to the level of what we call 'fighting words.' "
Indeed, the shirt isn't likely to cause the kind of political turbulence experienced at, say, the University of California at Berkeley in the late 1960s. I mean, no National Guard troops, no tear gas ... nothing.
Alfano recalled that several years ago, when he was principal at Downey High School in Modesto, a student wore a T-shirt that read, "Jesus Loves Bush. Everybody Else Thinks He's An (expletive)."
"I had an issue with that because it's intended to provoke a response," Alfano said.
He sent the kid home to change.
Remoni's shirt isn't vulgar. But was it provocative?
"The word 'hater' was why (the teacher) sent him up and referred it to the office," Alfano said. "We want to encourage free speech. If kids are wearing buttons promoting a particular candidate, we promote that. We want them to be involved in the process. It's like sports. We tell them when they go to games, root loudly for your team and keep it positive. From the parent's standpoint, I think she was trying to do something positive."
The answer is yes, Remoni Tufono can wear the Obama shirt to school, Alfano said. That shirt. The "HI haters" shirt.
He also asked the Tufonos to consider finding another Obama shirt -- one offering a more positive message -- which Deminica Tufono said she will do.
"I'm not going to fan the flames," she said. "I love Northmead school and all the staff. I'll probably find him another Obama shirt."
Perhaps like the campaign shirt that read, "Change."
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or firstname.lastname@example.org.