Eager to show her support for a cause she considers important, Needville High School senior Calista Martinez drew the letters “BLM” — short for Black Lives Matter — with a black Sharpie on her blue face mask and wore it to school nearly two weeks ago.
On the second day of wearing the mask, a teacher wrote Martinez a pass to the principal’s office — the reason listed as “Mask BLM,” according to a photo of the pass that Martinez shared with The Chronicle.
The school’s assistant principal told her the mask was not permitted and that she had to take it off, Martinez recalled. She asked why. The administrator told her the mask’s message could create a conflict with other students, Martinez added.
She asked the administrator why other students were allowed to wear masks in apparent support of President Donald Trump, who has attacked the movement.
“Well, yeah that’s our president,” she recalled being told. “I was disappointed in them. I didn’t understand.”
Martinez complied with the request until Thursday, when she says she again observed other students wearing pro-Trump masks and not being admonished. She wore her mask again, a move that she says drew her an in-school suspension. A family member notified the school that Martinez would be going home.
Later Thursday, school officials announced a revised dress code for secondary students that requires face masks “be free of any images, words and political slogans,” according to an update posted on the high school’s website. Displays of district, campus, Texas or American flag logos will be permitted.
It remained unclear whether Martinez would continue to face discipline upon returning to school. A district spokeswoman said she was not aware of the development and that regardless, officials “do not discuss student discipline issues.”
“I’m kind of happy that they changed the rule now,” Martinez said Thursday evening. “I’m just upset that it took this long…They did all this for no reason — trying to be difficult when they could have just banned all the masks in the first place.”
A district spokesperson said this week that Superintendent Curtis Rhodes had no comment beyond a previous statement that the Needville ISD was reviewing its dress code. The incident was first reported by KPRC-TV.
“The district is working through several novel issues as students return to school during the pandemic, including the requirement to wear face masks. I have learned that a student came to school wearing a Confederate flag and that student was told it was not permitted,” Rhodes said. “When a student wore a Black Lives Matter face mask, that student was told the same thing — that face mask was not permitted. The district recognizes that it is important to provide students with guidance regarding what face masks are permitted and which are not.”
After receiving an initial warning about her custom mask, Martinez said, she expressed disappointment to the assistant principal who had told her to replace it. Once she removed the mask, the school’s principal approached her during lunch, wanting to talk about her being angry with administrators.
“I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed,” she said she told him.
“Well, you know, sometimes in life we can’t get our way,” Martinez recalled the principal telling her.
The dispute in the rural school district 45 miles southwest of downtown Houston is the latest to arise over dress codes. Administrators in recent years have admonished students or issued in-house suspensions over the length of dreadlocks, etching a design in a fade haircut and wearing a hijab.
The Texas branch of the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to hundreds of school districts last week, including 11 in the Houston region, asking them to change their dress code policies to allow young men to wear their hair long.
Because many Houston-area students are returning to the classroom for the first time in months — most districts turned to virtual instruction after the new coronavirus began spreading last spring— questions about appropriate mask wear are fairly new.
After a summer of protests about police violence against Blacks, Martinez said was she merely trying to stand with those drawing attention to the issue. Blacks comprise only 3.4 percent of students in the district, which is predominantly white or Hispanic.
“It’s a serious matter and people need to know what is going on,” she said of why she customized her mask. “I’m just trying to be a voice.”