Student Who Stands up for Beliefs Ends Up in Jail

By Yvonne Nicoletti

It was a day before my eighteenth birthday, an occasion that I had been looking forward to for a long time. I was a senior in Andover , Massachusetts .

I was an honor student and the head of the first feminist group ever to be started at Andover , Riot Grrrls: Mass Chapter Babies. I was looking forward to getting a tattoo, going out with my friends, and performing in the school's talent show that weekend. I thought about all these things as I sat locked in a tiny jail cell that evening.

T-shirt deemed "obscene"

On the morning of October 21, 1994, I pulled on my long sleeve white Zombie Shirt, as it was cool outside. The shirt depicted a colorful collage painted by Rob Zombie, lead singer of White Zombie.

Although I had owned the shirt for two years and am among several students who wear it occasionally, I was informed by the assistant principal that the shirt was inappropriate.  "Excuse me?" I said. I asked what was inappropriate about it and was told that the size of the breasts on the fully-clothed cartoon women in the collage was "obscene." 

I was dumbfounded, thinking of my own 36-D bust line, and asked if my breast, too, were obscene because of their size. I received no answer and was told to go home and change. I said I was going to class and left.

Throughout the morning, I was pulled out of my classes by school officials and the principal insisted that I leave school. Finally, my parents were notified and convinced to remove me from school for the day. As I walked through the halls lined with marijuana shirts, Co-ed Naked shirts, and one particularly offensive shirt that read, "Silly Faggot, dicks are for chicks," I felt confused, hurt and violated.

When I was forced to leave school that afternoon, I, as a radical feminist and opponent of censorship, decided to discuss the issue with my parents.  My parents realized that I would never be able to respect myself if I couldn't stand up for what I believe in, and returned me to school with my shirt.

When I got to school, I spotted the huge rock that faces the school and acts as a huge billboard for student messages. I climbed on top of it and stood there in silent protest. When anyone asked what I was doing, I explained that I had been kicked out of school for wearing the shirt, and was protesting.

Moments later, Jason a friend of mine, joined me sporting a Nirvana T-shirt. He felt that if my shirt was "obscene," his was far worse.  

        It was toward the end of the day when I slipped my bra off through the sleeve of my shirt, and waved it at students leaving the school.  When I noticed a few kids looking out of the windows, I slipped the bra over my shirt, covering the offending images on the T-shirt.

Arrested from protest rock

A few moments later the police arrived, and I stood staring at three cruisers and a motorcycle cop. "You have a choice," said one officer. "You can either evacuate he area or be arrested."

I explained that a member of the yearbook staff wanted to take my picture and asked if I could wait for him. When I received no response, I offered to leave, but was arrested anyway.  By this time the windows of the school were packed with onlookers. I was cuffed and led off the rock. "Think offensively!" I yelled up to the kids, as I was stuffed into a cruiser.

Down at the police station I was read my rights and charged with disturbing a school. While I was in jail I received a letter from the principal stating that I was suspended indefinitely. I spent several hours in jail before I was able to bail myself out, and began immediate communication with the ACLU, which felt that my First Amendment rights were violated and accepted my case.

Several unsettling conversations occurred between my lawyer, my parents and school officials. The principal said what my mother and I did was so "beyond the pale of normalcy that we should be psycho-evaluated." He insinuated that the feminist revolution of the 90s was a figment of my imagination, that Riot Grrrls was not a real organization, and that the kind of feminist statements I made through my fashion statements would prove me to be unstable. I was barred from performing in the talent show.   

Awaiting Trial

I couldn't understand why I was being used as a scapegoat when the high school had so many more serious problems. In the last year, there were three suicides, several pregnancies, over a dozen kids expelled for drugs, and a very recent display of swastikas painted on campus. None of these issues had ever been addressed!

Fortunately, after agreeing not to wear my White Zombie shirt and another item of clothing, I was able to go back to school. I have already been to court three times, attempting to defend my rights of expressions, speech and protest, but because I won't admit my guilt, the case is going to trial in July. I don't know what to think anymore.

All I did was apply what I learned in the classroom to outside the classroom, and I was arrested for it. In a school where swastikas are dismissed as a harmless prank, I never thought that my breasts would be considered a police matter.      

Yvonne Nicolleti's piece appeared in Bill of Rights Network, winter 1995.  The charges against her were subsequently dismissed.