Harmony School for Advancement senior Fatimah Bouderdaben wanted to participate with the city-wide tribute to the recently murdered Harris County Sheriff's Deputy Darren Goforth by wearing a blue shirt to school last Friday, but she also wanted to remind people that the issue of police brutality was still under debate. So she inscribed her blue shirt with “Black Lives Matter” as well as the names and ages of victims like Eric Garner and Michael Brown. Bouderbaden says she was sent home from school for refusing to change out of her shirt or turn it inside out.
“Many of my friends were upset about the implications of wearing blue so I made t shirts with the words ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the front and the names and ages of 26 victims of police brutality on the back,” says Bouderdaben. “We were told by the administration to either cover it up / take it off or be pulled from class and sent home. My friends chose to change but I refused to because I was not breaking dress code.”
Bouderdaben, 17, said she and three other students were addressed in their first period class by Dean of Students Meredith Millspaugh about how their shirts were disrupting the school environment. According to Bouderdaben the phrase “all lives matter” was also used, a phrase frequently seen by supporters of the BLM movement as an attempt to shut down conversations about the disproportionate number of blacks that have fatal encounters with the police. A recent investigation by The Guardian showed that blacks make up 29 percent of people killed by police despite being only 13 percent of the general population. Of those killed 32 percent were unarmed.
Bouderdaben says that during her next period class, she was taken into the hall by Millspaugh, who told her she had to change or be sent home. Bouderdaben says that when she refused, Millspaugh began yelling at her until the teenager started to cry.
“She was blaming me for pretty much everything going on in the school,” says Bouderdaben. “She told me that she heard some kids were calling her a racist and that had never happened before I put on the shirt so it was my fault people were calling her that. I don’t think it was very professional of her to yell at me because of my beliefs.”
Mustafa Tameez with Outreach Strategists LLC, speaking on behalf of Harmony, says the problem with Bouderdaben's shirt was not the “#BlackLivesMatter” painted on the front, but rather the list of dead people, mostly black men, on the back.
“We had complaints from students that are sons and daughters of law enforcement that came to the administration and they were quite upset by it,” Tameez told the Press. "They had names of African Americans that, according to them, were killed by white officers." School administrators, Tameez confirmed, told the students to turn their shirts inside out. They'd decided the list of people who died at the hands of police was deliberately controversial and too provocative for the classroom environment, he told us.
“The issue is that if you're coming into the school to provoke stuff and other kids are offended by it, then our policy is you can't offend other people,” Tameez said. “We've got a bunch of other kids. We don't want fights in the school. We were trying to contain and handle her as delicately as possible.”
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Tameez also pointed us to the dress code section of the school's general guidelines which states: “Garments will be free of holes, tears, inappropriate language, logos, messages or advertising.”
Bouderdaben was picked up by her mother, who was supportive of her daughter’s actions. The family is very politically active. Bouderdaben has previously attended protests, including ones against Israeli actions in Palestine and marching in the Martin Luther King Jr. parade.
The school took no further disciplinary action against Bouderdaben, and she did not receive an official reprimand. She says she's annoyed that being sent home cost her attendance in two AP classes and a science course. Bouderdaben says Millspaugh ultimately apologized to her and her mother for any personal attacks, and said the school is looking into setting aside a day to address Black Lives Matter.
“At least that’s what they told my mom on the phone,” says Bouderdaben. “This is something I completely believe to be important. It’s hard to stand up for your beliefs, but it’s more important to speak than stay silent.”