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Chancellor Joel Klein has nothing on administrators at Booker T. Washington Middle School in northern Manhattan when it comes to finding ways to use corporate money in the public schools. Since last fall, Booker T. has forced students caught breaking the dress code to cover up the offending article of clothing, be it a spaghetti strap or some form of gang insignia, with oversized red Coca-Cola T-shirts.
Booker T. parents want the practice stopped. They argue, as one parent puts it, that the school is forcing their kids to parade around like “walking billboards.”

“It’s crazy,” says Willie Cole, a Bronx native whose daughter attends Booker T. “Why would they come up with an idea like that? No one got a memo about this. Most parents would have spoken up about it.” Betsy Combier, a former PTA president and mother of two Booker T. students, agrees. “It’s pretty staggering what’s going on over there,” she says, referring to the middle school.

But school officials stand behind the T-shirt policy. Several attempts to contact Booker T.’s principal went unanswered, and assistant principals directed questions about the policy to Fred LaSenna, director of the school’s Delta program for advanced students. He says the shirts are leftover gifts from a reading contest Coca-Cola sponsored a few years ago. “It’s not strange at all,” says LaSenna. “Whether a child wears a Coca-Cola shirt isn’t a priority for me when there’s so many other things wrong with New York City schools.”

Coca-Cola’s vice president of public affairs, Robert Lanz, disagrees. When notified that his company’s T-shirts were being worn to punish school children, he called the dress code policy “absurd,” adding that Coca-Cola never sanctioned the t-shirts’ use in that manner. Lanz said the company would ask the school to stop using the shirts.

Education experts say the T-shirt policy raises legal questions as well. “I’m worried about the imposition on students’ rights,” says Norm Fruchter, director of New York University’s Institute for Education and Social Policy. “If they’re going to do this, it certainly should be something neutral and not a piece of advertising.”

Combier, meanwhile, is just as concerned about the shirts’ cleanliness as their corporate logo. “I don’t remember seeing a laundromat in the school,” she scoffs. No worries, say Booker T. officials, since the Coca-Cola shirts aren’t reused. Instead, lucky students who break the dress code get to take home the T-shirts at the end of the day as free souvenirs.

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