WESTERLY, R.I. (AP)--Robert Parker was a sophomore when school officials said his "White Zombie" rock band T-shirt with the number 666 on the back was disruptive and violated the dress code. Two years and $60,000 in legal fees later, the case drags on, and Parker, now 18, is weeks away from graduating. "This has gotten way out of hand," said Parker's mother, Marianne Almeida. "It's just a $5 T-shirt. They've spent thousands of dollars fighting it." A state hearing, pitting the School Committee against the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, has taken some odd twists. The town asked a Roman Catholic priest to testify why the shirt could be viewed as satanic, while the ACLU asked a local radio personality, Rudy Cheeks, to say that there was nothing to fear from heavy metal music. "If they're concerned about people rioting in the streets, that didn't start with rock 'n roll," Cheeks said Monday." Thomas Grady, the town's lawyer, refused to comment. Parker was sent home in 1998 for wearing the black shirt for the now-defunct band and was ordered not to wear it again. Soon after, the ACLU filed a challenge with the state Education Deparment, claiming the school's dress code was vague and violated free speech rights. The ACLU is not charging Parker's family; but the town has run up at least $60,000 in legal fees. "I haven't done anything really wrong," Parker said. "It's all I can think about. It's always on my mind. I can't sleep." The ACLU pointed to a workshop the school held months before the T-shirt incident, led by the Rev. Paul DesMarais, the same priest who testified at Parker's hearing, on recognizing signs of gang or cult activity among students. "The workshop may have encouraged teachers to be on the lookout for nonexistent signs of satanism," said Steven Brown, executive director of the state ACLU. DesMarais testified the T-shirt appeared "demonic." "On the back, 666, has a long reference to the anti-Christ as being so evil," he said. "It's been clearly referenced as something that pertains to evil." The hearing has dragged on partly because Grady and the ACLU have been haggling over what testimony - on issues ranging from the occult to rock music - is relevant to the case. School Committee member Joseph Terranova, elected four months after Parker's T-shirt run-in, acknowledged the legal fees are high. "It is kind of sad we've had to spend this kind of money, which could have been used for books and computers," Terranova said. But he said there's an important principle at stake for the town. If we lose this, what is to stop kids from coming to school with shirts with ethnic slurs?" he asked. Superintendent Scott Kizner, who has served for eight months, said something positive could come from the case, such as guidelines to prevent future dress code problems. "There is a level of anxiety a lot of school districts have trying to keep schools safe with minimal distractions," he said. "We have to balance that against the rights of students." Northeastern University law professor Wendy Parmet said courts increasingly have sided with school districts on free speech issues because of safety concerns. "Children in school have First Amendment rights but they are less than others'," she said. Almeida thinks many people in this seaside town of about 22,000 support her family, but she said there were others who have been cruel. "Someone egged our house and there have been people driving by calling us satanists," she said. Parker said some students have been avoiding him. An Education Department ruling could come next month, though that may not be the end of it. Parker's mother said she wants to sue.
"There was no reason to pick on Bobby," Almeida said.