Arizona High School Drops 'Scarlet Badge' Policy After ACLU Inquiry

A high school in Cottonwood is dropping a "scarlet badge" policy after complaints from students and the ACLU of Arizona.
A high school in Cottonwood is dropping a "scarlet badge" policy after complaints from students and the ACLU of Arizona. ACLU of Arizona
A high school district in Cottonwood is ending a policy that forced upperclassmen in poor academic standing to wear a bright-red identification card after an inquiry by the ACLU of Arizona.

All students, regardless of class year and academic standing, will now wear the same red badge, according to a letter posted on the district's website on Wednesday.

At the beginning of this school year, Mingus Union High School implemented a new policy where juniors and seniors who were missing academic credits would wear a red badge signifying that they did not have off-campus privileges, instead of the gray badge worn by their classmates. Underclassmen already are required to wear a red badge.

The ACLU sent a December 28 letter to the Mingus Union High School District on behalf of a junior, Jordan Pickett, and her mother, Jennifer Lansman, informing school officials that the policy was discriminatory and illegal.
Mingus Union High School in Cottonwood was the target of an ACLU inquiry because of its badge policy. - ATOMICSELECTION/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
Mingus Union High School in Cottonwood was the target of an ACLU inquiry because of its badge policy.
Atomicselection/Wikimedia Commons
The legal director for the ACLU wrote that the policy "publicly identifies and shames underperforming students" and runs counter to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, the Americans With Disabilities Act, and the 14th Amendment.

Pickett had been forced to wear a red badge because she was missing academic credits; she and two other students raised concerns about the policy at a meeting of the district governing board in September.

An attorney for the district, Susan Segal, responded with a letter defending the policy as a legal practice meant to ensure school safety. Pickett's red badge shows that she does not have enough credits to qualify as a junior, Segal wrote, and grade level is a form of public information that can be disclosed under FERPA unless the student's parent opts out, which Lansman had not.

Segal argued that because the school's official colors are gray and red, the red badges were not meant to be a "punitive" scarlet letter-style mark of shame. "Had the school colors been green and gold, the badges would have those colors," Segal wrote on January 2.

But now, according to a letter posted on the school website, the district is ending the policy "based on feedback from first semester."

"Campus safety and students feeling like they belong are incredibly important at Mingus Union High School," the letter says without mentioning the ACLU.

All students will now wear a uniform red ID, and upperclassmen will receive off-campus lunch passes if they meet the requirements for off-campus privileges, according to the letter. Juniors and seniors will be issued a new badge on Wednesday and the lunch passes will be sent to students this week.

MUHSD is a small district in the Verde Valley. The high school serves approximately 1,200 students, and the only other school operated by the district is an online academy.

Segal did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding the policy change.

Marcela Taracena, a communications coordinator for the ACLU, said the organization will not be pursuing further legal action as a result of the district's decision. She credited the change in policy to Pickett and Lansman for speaking up.

“I think that the new policy protects students’ private academic information," Taracena said, "but I think most importantly it eliminates that kind of public ridicule and humiliation that Jordan and juniors and seniors who weren’t doing well experienced when they had to walk around with the scarlet badge and show the entire school that they weren’t doing well.”
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Joseph Flaherty is a staff writer at New Times. Originally from Wisconsin, he is a graduate of Middlebury College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Contact: Joseph Flaherty