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T-shirts long worn by senior students at Santa Rosa High School became a point of contention in the first weeks of the school year after administrators banned dozens of nicknames emblazoned on the clothing for “inappropriate” connotations.

Many of the nicknames in question used everyday terms that double for street slang and stand for drug or sexual references. For some students, the double meaning was unintentional.

The T-shirts are a longtime senior tradition, but the review of nicknames has in the past been cursory, according to Mark Wardlaw, a veteran Santa Rosa High educator.

Under new principal Kimberly Clissold the nicknames have been vetted through various methods, including reference sites such as Urban Dictionary — a crowdsourced, online dictionary for slang.

The vetting took place through T-shirt order forms submitted by students by Aug. 24. That’s where the dispute began.

Up to 100 student nicknames were rejected in the vetting process, according to a senior in student government who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation. The student was among those who had to notify classmates whose nicknames were flagged.

Clissold said that only up to 30 names were rejected.

Nevertheless, the campus dispute has roiled the student body only several weeks into the school year. Student leaders have accused administrators of poor communication, saying most of their peers in the senior class were unaware a more stringent review had been established.

“There was no communication at all from administrators, it was only through student government,” said senior Natalie Cucina. “A lot of people had very strong feelings.”

In line to pay for her T-shirt, Cucina heard a female student get rejected for the nickname “Bear.” Urban Dictionary defines a bear as “a term used by gay men to describe a husky, large man with a lot of body hair.”

Students seemed taken aback that such scrutiny would be imposed on a seemingly harmless campus tradition.

“We didn’t know they would be meticulously going through the names,” said Cucina, 17. “I think it’s really silly, it seems so small and insignificant to spend time on this.”

Clissold said the shirts not only represent the students, but the school, as well.

“We want students to express themselves but at the same time we have a duty as the adults on campus,” she said.

Clissold said she took part in the vetting process “very minimally” and it was mostly a new student government teacher and an assistant principal who reviewed the nicknames.

“It’s good to have two to three or four sets of eyes” to check nicknames, she said.

Clissold maintained that senior T-shirt nicknames have always been reviewed. “The policy and the process are the same,” she said.

But Wardlaw, a music teacher at the school for 29 years, said he had never before seen administrators enforce senior T-shirts so strictly.

The school historically has had a “laissez faire attitude” about student clothing, he said.

“When you’re a senior in high school with traditions, it’s a big deal for these kids,” he said.

In the past, Wardlaw said there have been a few past cases of nicknames with double meanings, but “a lot of it is harmless.”

“This tradition is as old as I can remember,” he said.

This school year, a senior who loves weather news was told not to use the nickname “Weather Man,” which has multiple definitions on Urban Dictionary, including “one who is in the business of distributing cocaine.”

Another senior with the nickname Chicken, bestowed on her by a teacher, was told it wasn’t allowed on her T-shirt. The second definition for chicken on Urban Dictionary says it’s “a kilogram of cocaine.”

Senior Arynn Valdez, 17, depicts sea turtles, hammerhead sharks, leopards, lions and more in her artwork, which she prints on stickers, decals, buttons and clothing to be sold on her online store, SurrealPsycho. A portion of sales go toward the World Wildlife Fund.

She wanted to put the name SurrealPsycho on her senior T-shirt, but was told by a teacher that the wording didn’t sound right for school. So she thought of a quick back up nickname, Aroon, which was accepted.

“It was kind of upsetting because it’s important to me,” Valdez said.

Students who took issue with the heavier hand wielded by administrators said they felt it betrayed a lack of trust in them.

Some seniors who ordered their T-shirts at the end of last school year are already wearing them on campus. The nicknames on them were not vetted in the same way as those submitted last month at the start of Clissold’s tenure, according to students and Wardlaw.

The new batch of approved T-shirts is set to arrive in the coming weeks.

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707-521-5216 or susan.minichiello@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter@susanmini.

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