'We're All Lesbians' shirt lands eighth grader in dress code battle with school

The student and her mother are speaking out.
The middle school student is defending her right to wear this T-shirt she bought at a Broadway performance.
The middle school student is defending her right to wear this T-shirt she bought at a Broadway performance.Courtesy of Gwen Wu

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/ Source: TODAY
By Chrissy Callahan

During her summer vacation, eighth grader Justice Cillo-Smith saw a performance of the Broadway musical "The Prom."

The hit show chronicles four Broadway actors as they attempt to help a lesbian high school student who's not allowed to bring her girlfriend to the prom.

While attending the show, Cillo-Smith saw a souvenir T-shirt with the phrase "We're All Lesbians," that instantly resonated with her. "I liked it because I am a lesbian and the musical was wonderful and made me cry," she told TODAY Style.

Last month, the 13-year-old wore the shirt to Liberty Middle School in West Orange, New Jersey, for the first time and was excited to show it off to all her friends. But her school administration didn't think the shirt was appropriate.

After second period, Cillo-Smith was called down to the guidance office, where the student assistance counselor told her that her shirt was in violation of the school's dress code.

"The student assistance counselor referenced the (dress code's) sixth bullet point when I spoke with her over the phone. It forbids 'articles of clothing that contain references to illegal substances, sexual innuendos, inappropriate language, and pictures, sayings or symbols that show affiliation with hate groups, gangs, or demeaning messages directed toward any individual, group or association,'" Cillo-Smith's mother, Gwen Wu told TODAY Style.

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Cillo-Smith initially wore this shirt to school on Sept. 25.Courtesy of Gwen Wu

When Wu arrived at the school, Principal Robert Klemt said Cillo-Smith's shirt also violated the seventh bullet point in the school's dress code, which forbids "any accessory that can be dangerous and/or disruptive to the learning environment."

"My initial reaction was one of great displeasure and disappointment in the school's policy because my daughter and I felt that the shirt wasn't in any violation of dress code," Wu said. "The principal told me that it was disruptive to the learning environment as she could be targeted for the shirt because middle school students weren't as accepting as students in the high school and that he was in fact 'protecting her' by making her remove the shirt."

Cillo-Smith, who missed her third period class due to the incident, said she felt singled out: "My initial reaction was anger and it made me feel that they had a bias against me for being openly lesbian."

A week after Cillo-Smith received a dress code citation, one of her friends, an eighth grader at another school in the district, wore the same shirt and didn't receive any dress code violations.

Last week, Wu and Cillo-Smith attended the West Orange Board of Education meeting, and Wu spoke on her daughter's behalf. Board members and student liaisons responded positively to their message, but Wu said the district's superintendent hasn't personally reached out to her and her daughter.

School officials told the 13-year-old her shirt was in violation of the school's dress code.Courtesy of Gwen Wu

The district superintendent, Dr. J Scott Cascone, shared the following statement with TODAY Style: "As I have stated before, I am a superintendent who strives to nurture an environment wherein all students and staff feel welcome, safe, comfortable and supported. When it comes to light that we have fallen short in our mission, what shall we do as a community? We shall not condemn, we shall not judge, we shall not cast out. I say, as a learning organization, let’s come together through honest and heartfelt dialogue, and let’s teach and grow. That is precisely the effort in which I lead. Constructive steps are already being taken on the part of the community, not to these ends, but better stated to these beginnings! The first step was taken on Monday night by a youngster and we will, as I find we sometimes do, take our cue from the children for whom we care."

He also encouraged students and parents to reach out to him with any concerns: "My door and email inbox remain open to feedback, expertise and reflections as West Orange continues to set an example of a community which refuses to be divided as it learns and evolves to keep pace with an ever-changing world. All are special here, all are welcome and all are celebrated!"

Earlier this week, several of Cillo-Smith's classmates designed 200 papers that read "We're All Lesbians" and handed them out to fellow students to wear in solidarity.

"At the end of the school day, many of them were called to an 'optional meeting' with the principal, the vice principal and the two guidance counselors at the school, but the administration told the students nothing specific could be said about (Justice's) incident. They also claimed my daughter's shirt was not in violation of any dress code rules," Wu said.

Now that some time has passed since she received a dress code violation, Cillo-Smith said she hopes her story encourages others to be more accepting. "I hope people learn that it's not OK to discriminate against LGBTQ children and that you can't just respect what people in power say because they could be wrong. It's important to stand up for your own rights, even if you have to go against everything the school is telling you," she said.

Wu echoed her daughter's sentiments: "We hope that the school district on a whole becomes much more inclusive and that all children can feel safe and comfortable being unapologetically themselves."