Why the Capital High School T-Shirt Debacle Was Lose-Lose-Lose-Lose

Recently, my community witnessed an event that, in the scheme of things, was a tempest in a tea pot. Some graduating high school seniors defied the authority of their principal in the last few days of school, lost their right to march for their diploma, then regained the right to march. This was all over some t-shirts.

I don’t struggle much to define what I think about local events, but this one threw me for a loop. The butterfly effect of a series of choices by students, school leaders, parents, school board, and the chattering class kept the whole thing a moving target.

What went wrong?

In short, everything. There were so many bad decisions in play it was almost impossible to form an opinion as it went along. Today, the kids are graduated, the graffiti is scrubbed from city property, and we have all moved on.

The problem is, we may not really be able to start over as easily as we might hope.

My eyes were opened to some of the serious issues facing any administrator at Capital High School when I attended the funeral of its first principal, Mr. Clendenen. Clendenen presided over the consolidation of two power house schools in Kanawha County — Stonewall Jackson and Charleston High — into one school with strong identity and sense of pride. Many people thought that it couldn’t be done, that bringing together these long-standing rivals was too difficult.

In short, the Sharks and the Jets just don’t get along. Mr. Clendenen and the merging student bodies had a mighty task at hand.

What I learned at Clendenen’s memorial service is that we need to never take for granted the creation of a new and successful high school out of two former enemies. The very existence of one functioning school filled with academic achievement and student pride is a gift to our community. But from a historical perspective, it just happened.

From my armchair, I think the principal at Capital High School picked an odd battle to fight to the death. There is not much public disagreement about that. There are, however, a few more issues worthy of review.

A friend of mine put it well when she said, “You know who my parents would have been angry with over this? Me. If I were told five times not to do something by the principal and then I did it and encouraged others to do it, losing the privilege to march for my diploma, they would have taken it up with me.”

Requiring 18 year olds to face the consequences of their choices did NOT happen here. Parents and community members pitched a fit and asked the school board to intervene. Never wanting to miss a chance to lead a charge into an inappropriate drama, the school board asked the county superintendent to overturn the principal. Though phrased as a compromise, the principal lost. The kids marched, and then in an entirely predictable final act of defiance threw their victory in the principal’s face on stage. The adults in the audience erupted into wild applause.

It is a good thing when conflict can be resolved in win-win situations, but that didn’t happen here.

The principal lost: He was stripped of all respect and authority by the superintendent.

The parents lost: They can expect to get several phone calls from college and beyond asking them to come clean up their kids’ messes when they disregard life’s rules because they “just don’t agree with them.”

The kids lost: Not understanding the long-term consequences of what they did, they see themselves as heroes, and to many today they are. The sad thing is they learned the wrong lesson here, and leave town with an image of immaturity and privilege.

The community lost: The adults here tore down a good man. I can’t help but wonder how many people taking jabs at the principal would survive one day leading Capital High School. Though he may have made a tactical error, it was his to make.

Adults need to get a clue and rally around each other when the stakes are high. There were so many other ways this could have ended, not the least of which could have been an after-party for the kids where they wore their shirts and celebrated on their own terms.

I applaud the students for their willingness to take risk for their beliefs. The problem is, at the end of the day, the adults took back their real glory by erasing the consequences of their actions.

Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote letters from the Birmingham jail. As the saying goes, I’m just sayin’.

29 thoughts on “Why the Capital High School T-Shirt Debacle Was Lose-Lose-Lose-Lose

  1. This is the best reaction to the mess yet! You nailed it. I would have reprimanded my child and NOT allowed her to walk in the graduation for defying the rules. I’m all for standing up for what you believe in but you MUST reap the consequences of your actions. This new generation of kids that feel entitled to everything is appalling. This cruel world will open their eyes soon enough and allow them to see they are entitled to nothing and actions have consequences. As a parent, I want my child’s eyes opened to that well before she leaves my nest.

  2. Excellent post. I disagree with you a little. I think the principal shouldn’t have picked the fight in the first place and the punishment didn’t fit the crime.

    Natalie Tennant’s dad was my high school principal, and I always think of him as the gold standard for principals. He was a country gentleman, who never strayed far from his farm roots. He retired as my class graduated. He had an odd way of pronouncing things, and our class teased him for years. The words “special” and “pleasure” were particular challenges to him for some reason.

    At our senior assembly, the class presented the school with a plaque commemorating his long service and his “special pleasure” in serving the community. Mr. Tennant probably could have gotten angry, been embarrassed, but he was characteristically generous, standing on the stage and laughing both at himself and with us. He was (and is) a generous man, with a large sense of humor.

    A little laughter goes a long way.

  3. However, I have to say that someone should have tried to talk some sense into the principal. Banning shirts that were not obscene and displayed school pride as the students felt it? Wow, what a power trip he must have been on. By choosing this as his bridge to die on, he’s opened himself up for a world of trouble. Some battles are not worth fighting.

  4. No one’s going to sum this thing up better than your second to last paragraph. So well observed. When I first read about all this, it was hard not to identify with the kids. Honestly, I think I’d be a little worried if my 18-year-old didn’t have a “you’re not the boss of me” reflex. The endgame, however, leaves me shaking my head. Apparently earning your badass badge is pretty easy these days. Thing is, in five or ten years, those involved are likely to realize the tradeoff was a bitch. Take away the “bad” and it turns out you’re just an ass.

  5. Someone privately messaged me additional information I think people need to understand:

    “I wanted to comment on your blog post, but really didn’t want to do it publically for several reasons. Anyway, the one thing I will say about The CHS incident is tihs. Giles has to deal with something that NONE of the other principals in the county have to deal with…Gang Affiliation and Recruiting.

    According to the FBI Gang Taskforce there is at least one representative from every major gang in South, Central, and North America currenlty residing in Kanawha County. They recruit and use young people from the CHS district to become runners for them. The minute that Giles relaxes on any clothing codes already set in the student handbook, he’s lost his battle with gang affiliation. They could start wearing their colors and wearing tshirts that promote their symbols and affiliation. Therefore, he has to be vigiliant about the student dress code that is set in the handbook.

    If this had happend at any other high school I would view as trivial and a stupid battle to pick. However, in this instance, I understand. I’m all about students testing their boundaries and waters, but I don’t promote open defiance at the risk of creating trouble for others.”

    • Wow! It all makes a lot more sense now. I didn’t realize gang affiliation was so huge in Kanawha County. Glad my child doesn’t attend school there or live in that area.

    • Is there any evidence that the abbreviation and/or color is being used by any gang in Kanawha County (or elsewhere)? If not, I still think it’s a silly battle for him to pick. Also, is the banning of the “Cap” abbreviation or the banning of the paw print in the dress code? Perhaps I’m not seeing the issue over the pawprint as my high school used the paw print interchangably with the Polar Bear as a symbol of pride. *waves at Robert*

      • I read the coverage pretty widely, and I didn’t see anyplace where Principal Giles mentioned this as an issue. If he had, I’d feel differently, but he didn’t. And I still think the punishment didn’t fit the crime.

        Kids are learning to be adults. Certainly taking their punishment is part of the learning process. But the punishment should fit the crime. If it doesn’t, sure, as a parent I’d make a phone call.

  6. Well said, Elizabeth. Running a high school is a herculean task that almost no one really understands. Principals get grief from everyone: teachers, students, parents, superintendents, politicians. I may just be cynical, but I believe the task is only becoming harder as technology facilitates poisonous gossip and invective and allows relatively minor issues to explode into community-consuming conflagrations. Issues that may have involved the principal, a few teachers, and a few members of the community now involve everyone. The community will always win because it will always be far louder and far more powerful than any school administrator, however in the right he or she may be, however silly may be the issue at hand.

    I’m sorry, again, to be so cynical, but what is wrong with us when we raise such a fuss over T-SHIRTS? Do young people today have a sense of entitlement? You bet! But you know what I think? They always have and always will. I think history bears this out. People who are young, who are still developing, still figuring out the rules, still learning how these rules, reasonable respect for authority, and restraint make the world function with some semblance of order (a debatable claim, I suppose, but let’s compare today to previous centuries) will always demand stupid things and become indignant and hysterical when someone tells them they can’t have them–not yet. What makes the difference is whether the parents and adults in their lives stick to their guns and say, “No, not only can’t you get exactly what you want, you need to be mature about it and save your protestations for things that really matter.” I don’t blame the youth for any of this. Someone raised them. WE raised them.

  7. Look, I agree that being a principal or a teacher is an extremely tough job, and teachers and principals need support from parents. Parents are crucial to a student’s success. If the parents don’t value education, the child will not value education.

    However, in this case I have to respectfully disagree with the idea that the principal deserves our unquestioning support. Clearly this man needs better conflict resolution skills. He actively provoked kids into being insubordinate, and then punished them for it. It takes two to tango–these things don’t happen in a vacuum. There are better ways to handle these kinds of things.

    I believe in respecting leaders, but I also believe that authority should be questioned. The kids should be held accountable for their actions, but so should he. He should be the one setting an example and providing leadership.

    And honestly, I have to take the whole FBI/gang angle with a grain of salt. Is this an authoritative source, or someone just passing along gossip? Why would gangs be interested in only one local high school? It seems much more likely to me that many local schools have gang issues. No other local schools have issues with gang colors? If even mentioning the FBI is going to jinx their investigation, why are you passing along the info here on the internet where anyone can read it? Sorry, the story just doesn’t make sense to me.

    • John, I never said unquestioning. I do find it fascinating that people hear what they want to hear in this dialogue, which I think is part of the problem.

      To the FBI, there is no detail given here and I would hope most reasonably aware people in our community know this. You are not here so you get a pass. I received permission from the source to post this. Her concern had more to do with personal consequences than any detrimental effect on public safety.

  8. I read the Daily Mail story and am amazed that those shirts were ever an issue. Gosh they are nothing. It sounds to me like the principal is a bully. Tis a good thing I wasn’t a teacher there because I would have had one of those shirts on.

    • And that would be one of the ways this could have gone differently. Early in this series of events I told a friend I am sure my former HS principal would have been the one with the shirt on underneath his clothes and been the one to surprise the kids on stage.

      That said, “If a frog had wings he wouldn’t bump his ass a hoppin’.” All the talk about the principal handling it another way doesn’t mean much. The first domino fell as it did, so how could others have reacted differently? I liked Michael’s comment. Take the bad out of bad ass and you’re just an ass.

      It’s a shame we are afraid to let young people — excuse me, white young people with relatively influential voting parents — fail early and fail small.

    • And actually “fail” is not the right word. Just experience the logical outcomes of their choices without adults over-tinkering with that learning process. Nothing about that is a failure, in fact I’d say it is part of long term success.

      • I hear ya, though I’m as OK with the word “fail” as I am with “stupid” as I used it in my comment. A little stupidity and failure are part of growing up. I did stupid things and I failed fairly often when I was a kid. I do stupid things and I fail as an adult, too. I use these words because I’d like to emphasize that it’s OK to mess up when you’re young, and it’s still OK to mess up in certain ways when you’re older.

        I admit to not knowing the entirety of your local situation, but in almost every instance that I’ve encountered where an official like this principal was impugned mercilessly for what appeared to be a bad decision, he or she was not out to harm anyone or to enjoy some kind of power trip. The situation took on a life of its own apart from what any single individual ever wanted to happen, and the initial decision had some kind of specific justification that either could not be communicated fully to the public or seemed uncontroversial until thousands of people started layering on their own interpretations of what was happening. Maybe the principal in this case acted stupidly (does that justify other people’s reactions, as you’ve noted?). But it’s quite possible (and frequently happens to be the case) that he didn’t have the luxury of explaining himself in full. Confidentiality and the law prevent school officials from explaining to the public the majority of the decisions–large and small–they make from day to day.

  9. I agree with the author of the original article. My parents would have had a SERIOUS problem with me for blantantly defying a DIRECT ORDER! Its not about the T-Shirts or even what the shirts said, it all boils down to a CHILD disobeying a DIRECT ORDER from an adult not just any adult, THE PRINCIPAL! The lost art of RESPECT! Whatever happened to doing as you are told?

    As a Capital High Alum, I had the pleasure of attending the GREAT CHARLESTON HIGH SCHOOL under the direction of the LATE GREAT JOHN CLENDENIN and I also finished my scholastic career with Mr Giles as my Assistant Principal and I can honestly say that during my time we would have never had this issue.

    Its amazing how these adults can condone this inappropriate behavior? Defying a direct order from the ADULT in charge? Its all about RESPECT for AUTHORITY! If we are not careful, if we dont get behind the people in charge at the schools in our communities, we will have “THE INMATES RUNNING THE PRISON”


    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts. It is nice to have someone who actually attended this school and knows some of the cultural elements chime in. I also appreciate you reminding me of Mr. Clendenin’s first name, I did not recall that.

      I tend to fall somewhere in the middle of these perspectives. It is very hard to balance the natural adolescent need to test boundaries with discipline. I know we don’t want to just create young people who follow orders without question in every case, but it seems crucial that we help them understand that when you go up against authority, you need to make sure your cause is well-defined and that you are ready and willing to accept all the consequences of your actions.

      I still think about this episode because it is so layered. Some people said the “punishment should fit the crime” – agreed, and yet in the last days of school for seniors, not much is left that can influence behavior.

      Hopefully, this episode will settle into a review of the clothing policy and either some kind of change or an agreement at-large that what is in place should stand.

      I am wishing CHS, and every school and every parent, the best in the effort to be just and wise with our children. It’s really difficult sometimes.

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