Idaho students protest ban on ‘brown pride’ hoodies considered a sign of gang affiliation

A video that went viral exposed a standoff between students and school officials in Idaho over whether the term “brown pride” is a symbol of cultural pride or a sign of gang affiliation.

A video viewed by more than 1.6 million people on TikTok and later shared on other platforms shows students at Caldwell High School in Idaho protesting for the right to wear culturally significant clothing with features such as the words “brown pride.”

In the video, Latina high school student Brenda Hernandez says school officials told her to remove her “brown pride” hoodie, as it can be considered racist and similar to wearing a “white pride” shirt.

Hernández, a senior, said in a phone interview that the January 17 protest followed an incident in early December. She was sitting in her fifth period economics class when she was called to the principal’s office and a school staff member escorted her there.

Hernandez said he had no reason to suspect he would be in trouble. She said her staff member informed her that her visit was due to her hoodie.

“He would tell me: ‘You can’t wear it, because it has ‘brown pride.’ It’s like wearing a white pride t-shirt. People may find it racist,’” he said.

Hernandez said the principal described the garment as gang-related and received a dress code violation.

Brenda Hernández waves a Mexican flag on the day of the protest on January 17. Courtesy of Brenda Hernandez

Caldwell High School’s dress code policy prohibits “wearing, wearing, carrying, or displaying any other gang clothing or attire, or style, jewelry, emblems, insignia, symbols, signs, codes, tattoos, or other things or items that evidence Membership or affiliation in any gang is prohibited on any school property or at any school-sponsored activity at any time.”

NBC News contacted Caldwell High School officials, reaching out to Caldwell School District Director of Communications Jessica Watts, who responded in an email statement: “In making this decision, our investigation shows that the The term ‘Brown Pride’ is associated with the street gangs currently operating in the Northwest. Therefore, per District Policy, students may not wear gang-affiliated clothing. We understand that some students may be concerned about this Policy.”

Char Jackson, the public information officer for the city of Caldwell, the Caldwell Police Department and the Caldwell Fire Department, said there are two main gangs in the region that they are dealing with: Northerners and Southerners.

Caldwell police discovered that the Brown Pride Southerners were a subset of Southerners and that they became active in the last two years, Jackson said.

A clothing brand subjected to the ‘stereotype’

Sonny Ligas, the director of the Idaho chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, also owns Jefito Hats, the local community brand that made the “Brown Pride” hoodie and first opened its doors. time in 1997.

The store sells Chicano-style hats, clothing, and accessories. The merchandise has become popular with youth and is frequently worn by students at various high schools.

“It really irritates me where they can stereotype, you know, saying it’s gang related,” Ligas said. “I’m not gang related, how are we going to allow these people to smear [stain] a culture with his words [words] they don’t know anything at all?

Hernandez, who models for Jefito Hats, said she had worn the same hoodie to school before and was never issued a dress code violation until last month.

A participant in the protest organized by the students holding a "brown pride" poster.
A student-organized protest participant holding a ‘brown pride’ sign.Courtesy of Brenda Hernandez

Hernandez said she believes that wearing culturally significant clothing comes from a place of comfort, a way to show her pride. She said that she organized the peaceful protest in agreement with the principal of her school.

He estimated a turnout of 100 students that morning before classes started. They brought rosaries, bandanas and clothing inspired by Latino heritage and brown pride, and some students brought Mexican flags, she said. Leagues also participated in solidarity.

But Hernandez said tensions rose after they were not allowed to protest by walking inside the building, which she and the principal had previously agreed to, she said, because they could disturb other classrooms. The group was moved outside and not allowed back inside unless the members removed their pride-related brown clothing.

Leagues and several students said they viewed the school policy as a form of censorship and discrimination.

“Brown pride” is not about racism; “It’s completely different,” Ligas said. The term is associated with decades of Chicano and Mexican American civil rights and cultural movements.

According to Caldwell School District Spring 2022 enrollment figures, 62.5% of K-12 students are Latino. Over 99% of all enrolled students come from low-income families.

One-fourth of Canyon County’s population, which includes the city of Caldwell, is Hispanic. Latinos account for 24% of the state’s population growth over the past decade, according to a 2021 Idaho Hispanic Affairs Commission report.

Lilly Meinen, a Latina freshman at Caldwell High School, said the term “moreno pride” was something students should be proud of. When she was asked if she thought the term could have negative implications, she said: “I knew it could, but no one I’ve seen used it negatively.”

Another student, Alexxis Childers, said she was suspended for taking part in the protests. The school district said she “cannot comment on student discipline.”

Childers, who is white, said students are being racially profiled.

“If they are going to remove the rosaries because they feel they might be affiliated with a gang, just as people think other religious groups are cults, then they should also remove the cross from all other students,” she said.

“I think it was extremely peaceful,” Childers said of the protest. “The school is trying to say that these kids are just gang members. And when you have, alone, this diverse group of kids, you can’t say that every single one of these kids is a gang member.”

NBC News asked an area charter school, Elevate Academy, about its dress code policies after several students said it had banned brown pride-related clothing and rosaries. The school has not responded.

Two days after the protest, Caldwell High School was vandalized with a “white power” tag and a white van was vandalized with a “brown pride” tag. Local authorities initially said they were investigating a possible hate crime; they later announced that they believed it to be an “act of intimidation between two rival Caldwell Hispanic criminal street gangs.”

Caldwell school officials’ handling of the protest is also an issue, said the students, who said they were treated poorly and their parents and the media did not get the facts from the school.

Leagues and other members of the community, including the Idaho American Civil Liberties Union, were scheduled to address the issues at a LULAC meeting later Monday.

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