Michigan third-grade student forced to remove hat with image of AR-15 rifle, lawsuit claims

DURAND, MI-Three employees at a Shiawassee County school district are named in a federal lawsuit claiming they violated a third-grade student’s First Amendment rights by telling her she could not wear a hat displaying an AR-15 assault rifle and the phrase, “ Come and take it, ”on hat day.

Durand Area Schools Superintendent Craig McCrumb, Robert Kerr Elementary School Principal Amy Leffel, and Michael Papenek, the On Track Coach at Robert Kerr Elementary School, are all named in a 10-page complaint filed Monday, May 9, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.

“By restricting Plaintiff’s clothing based on words and images that are non-threatening, non-disruptive, and non-vulgar, Defendants are violating Plaintiff’s freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment,” the lawsuit claims.

McCrumb declined to comment on the lawsuit on the advice of counsel when reached by MLive-The Flint Journal on Friday, May 13.

According to the lawsuit, the plaintiff, a third-grade student at the time of the incident identified in the lawsuit as “CS,” wore a baseball-style hat to a school “Hat Day” event on Feb. 17.

Students were encouraged to wear hats on hat day.

The hat worn by the student was black and featured a white star, an image of an AR-15 assault rifle, and the words “Come and take it” scrawled across the front. That phrase is a common slogan used to show support for the Second Amendment.

The student understood the meaning of the slogan on the hat, supports the right to keep and bear arms, and enjoys shooting sports, according to the complaint. The lawsuit also states that the student chose to wear that hat.

When the student wore the hat to school on hat day, Papanek called her father and asked if he would bring her a different hat to wear. He declined.

Leffel also called the student’s father, according to the lawsuit, and left a voicemail stating that the student could not wear the hat at school.

When the student returned home after school, she told her father that Papanek and Leffel made her take off the hat and put it in her locker.

The student’s father emailed Leffel, who confirmed that the student was not permitted to wear the hat.

“The hat in question had a picture of an AR type weapon on the front of it. Weapons of any kind are not appropriate for students to wear in a school setting, ”Leffel told the student’s father in an email, according to the lawsuit.

Per the Durand Area Schools dress code, “Anything printed on clothing must not be offensive in any way. The building principal/staff has the right to decide what is offensive, but some examples are: words/slogans that advertise illegal substances, words/slogans that are racially or religiously offensive, violence themes, vulgar or sexual innuendo, etc. ”

The lawsuit states that the slogan included on the student’s hat was not offensive, violent or threatening. It also claims the student’s Fourteenth Amendment right to due process was violated.

“By not providing Plaintiff with objective criteria for knowing what clothing is prohibited, Defendants are denying Plaintiff due process,” the lawsuit claims.

The student would like to wear the hat again on future hat days, but “she is in fear of discipline or being singled out for corrective treatment by Defendants if she does so,” the lawsuit states.

The relief sought in the lawsuit includes a declaration that the student can wear the hat and nominal fees, in addition to the fees and costs associated with having an attorney on the case.

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