ST. PETERSBURG - Christopher Martin is a quiet boy. He loves Adam Lambert, dreams of becoming a chemist and shuffles his long black hair in front of his face when he's done talking. The 14-year-old never expected to miss his last day at Meadowlawn Middle School for a dress code violation or that the incident would start a national media frenzy. As soon as Martin walked into school on June 5, two assistant principals confronted him about the T-shirt and makeup he was wearing. He never even made it to his first period. "They said I could change my shirt and wash it off and stay at school, but I didn't want to, even though I wanted to say goodbye to my friends," Martin said Wednesday, a day he spent fielding interview requests from local and national media. "I would do it all over again, though. I feel like the teachers need more tolerance and need to take this seriously."
After the school administrators told Martin his T-shirt and makeup - lipstick, black eyeliner and eyeshadow - violated school dress code policy, his mother, Katelynn Martin, and her partner, Jamie Himes, went to Principal Claud Effiom, then the school district and then the Internet to express their frustrations. A petition the family posted on MoveOn.org asking the school district to add more gay-straight alliance clubs in middle schools and require tolerance training for school administrators and faculty had garnered nearly 9,000 signatures as of Wednesday night. The story has been published in newspapers across the country, and MoveOn.org, GLAAD, the ACLU and other civil rights organizations are sharing the story. "The night before he asked me if he could wear makeup to school, and I didn't think it would be a problem. I just thought it would be a great opportunity for him to express himself," Katelynn Martin said. "I did his makeup for him, it wasn't over the top. He had gone to school that morning feeling very confident in himself. He even had me take a picture before he left, and then when he called me from the front office I could tell in his voice that he was upset and feeling very self-conscious." The American Civil Liberties Union sent Pinellas County Schools Superintendent Michael Grego a letter Wednesday saying the request for Martin to wash off his makeup violated his civil rights. Grego, though, said the whole incident has been grossly misrepresented. "There's a whole lot more to the story then what was reported," he said. The school does not have any rules or policies that would prevent Martin from wearing makeup to class, but the student code of conduct gives principals great latitude in preventing disruptions at school. "A principal may impose reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on your exercise of First Amendment freedom of expression when there is evidence of imminent disruption of the school." That policy is common in all learning intuitions, from elementary schools to colleges, Grego said. "It wasn't about just makeup, it wasn't about that at all," Grego said. "The student was very compliant, understood, and was totally fine. We were there at the school, the principal was there, and he did a good job. There were other issues - dress code violations and other things - and the student understood it. The adults sometimes don't get it, but the students are pretty good." If there is more to the story, Martin's mother said she "can't imagine what it would be." The school also took issue with her son's favorite "Sons of Anarchy" T-shirt: a black T-shirt from the popular TV show, featuring the Grim Reaper holding a scythe and an anarchy symbol. She told her son to turn his shirt inside out to comply with the principal's wishes, even though she said he has worn it multiple times to school. She couldn't, though, overlook the fact that his makeup wasn't any different from what his female classmates wore every day. Neither could the ACLU. "Applying a different rule to Chris because he is male constitutes sex discrimination in violation of the United States Constitution, the Florida Constitution and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972," said Daniel Tilley, a staff attorney with the ACLU, in the letter sent to Grego Wednesday. "Principal Effiom apparently has certain beliefs regarding how boys and girls should present themselves, but school officials may not discriminate based on gender stereotypes. Area superintendents have reached out to the family, and Martin's mother said she would like to work more with the school to resolve the problem. Other students have taunted him, calling him "gay," Martin said. His mother said she's gone to the school at least six times to report bullying. He's been punched in the face, had possessions destroyed by classmates and is still being treated for depression. Martin said he has always been "different" but doesn't want to "put himself in a box" by identifying with a certain gender or sexual orientation. "I'm just Christopher," he said. "I don't have to be anything else, that should be enough. Going through this experience makes me stronger and makes me feel like I'm better then the bad people, makes me feel like I'm one step ahead of them." Martin said he's not nervous the story about what happened at Meadowlawn will follow him to St. Petersburg High School next year and that he hopes the petition will help other kids going through similar experiences. GLAAD's director of religion, faith and values, Ross Murray, said he hasn't encountered other instances where a student was reprimanded for wearing makeup to school. "I don't know how someone wearing makeup is disruptive, and I think that's the thing that gets to be really subjective," Murray said. "If there's bias within the administration, or even within the student body, where is the disruption: the student that's wearing makeup or the teachers and administrators making a big deal about it?" Murray said he could see why school officials might have asked Martin to wash off his makeup if they were concerned about him being bullied. But asking him to change his behavior shouldn't have been the answer, he said. "[That is] no way to prevent bullying by telling a student not to be who they are or not to express themselves in a certain way," he said. Policies are constantly changing as they become outdated, but Martin's case doesn't warrant any re-examination of school district operations, Grego said. "We very much value the rights of students, but we also value, as all of our parents do, the ability to keep order and a create a sound learning environment in our schools, and that's a balancing act," Grego said. "We're very sensitive to students of all walks of life." [email protected] (727) 215-9851 Twitter: @adawsonTBO