03/10/2003 at 01:00 AM EST
Andrea Wright insists she wasn't making a racist fashion statement. But last October, when the Florida eighth grader showed up for class wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the Confederate flag, a black classmate took issue. "She found it offensive," says Andrea, 14, who owns 15 Confederate-themed tees made by Odum, Ga.-based clothier Dixie Outfitters. Administrators at Perry Middle School near Tallahassee, Fla., agreed and sent her home. "I was floored," says her mom, Tonia. "She probably wore her first Confederate-flag shirt when she was 6."
Confederate tees have become so trendy in some southern towns that many schools are wrestling with a question that has kept judges and lawmakers busy for years: to ban or not to ban? At least dozens of school districts from Virginia to Florida have forbidden such flag wear, including the $19.99 tees made by Dixie Outfitters, which sold a million last year. In Georgia the ACLU has helped teens overturn a ban with a lawsuit, and the group may file against other districts. The Wright family is considering a suit of its own. "It's my heritage," says Andrea, who, with her sisters Alise, 12, and Areial, 9, gathered 300 names in Perry (pop. 6,847) to overturn her school's ban. "I should be able to wear it wherever I want."
School superintendent Oscar Howard disagrees-and he's not alone. "The flag represents oppression," says Wayne Dunwoody, president of the local NAACP chapter. "We refuse to go back to the 1950s." Andrea—whose parents, Tonia, a restaurant cook, and Duran, a supermarket manager, won't allow her to break the rules—doesn't see it that way. "As a Southerner," Andrea says, "the flag is important to me."