Over the past year, numerous outlets have reported on students who wore Donald Trump-branded clothes and hats to school and were asked to remove it—or just sent home. But a closer look shows the story to be more complicated—a mess of politics, publicity, and schoolkid emotions. What happens when a Make America Great Again hat hits homeroom?
WARNING: Some viewers will find this video disturbing,” a disclaimer above the clip reads. Press play and you’re on a school bus in Chesterfield, Missouri with Parkway West Middle School student Gavin Cortina. A female student is screaming, “You want to build a f**k-freaking wall!?” Cortina, wearing his bright red Make America Great Again hat, yells back, “What’s wrong with building a wall to keep illegal immigrants out of our country?” Then he was “violently assaulted by the young indoctrinated leftist students,” one report reads. Cortina, various outlets reported, is ” pummeled” with punches by his peers who “gang up,” and corner him. “Want to know the even more disgusting part? After he was beaten up, the school suspended Gavin Cortina,” the Conservative Tribune writes. “SUSPENDED for wearing Trump hat,” the headlines read. The narrative was fully formed: a 12-year-old student assaulted for his right-wing beliefs.
At least that’s how it was reported by conservative news sites like The Gateway Pundit, The Blaze, The Daily Wire, The Conservative Tribune, The Right Scoop, Breitbart and Fox News.
In conversations with the school and Gavin’s mother Christina, I learned the story was a lot more tame. According to their accounts, the argument between Gavin and the other students began before they got on the bus. It didn’t start with politics—but after it went in that direction, Cortina put on the pro-Trump cap. A student flicked the bill of the hat and Gavin responded by pushing him in the back, according to a statement released by the school. There wasn’t a violent assault. No one was pummelled. As seen on the video, a brief altercation ensued between Gavin and a student wearing what appears to be a Vineyard Vines shirt and a puka shell necklace. Gavin’s mother Christina Cortina tells me over the phone that the school’s statement is correct—except that the hat was really flicked off by a student smacking her son in the back of the head. Three students in total, including Gavin, were suspended for fighting—not for the hat. A mediation process would follow.
Christina Cortina pointed to the incident as proof that “hypocrisy runs deep” during an appearance on The Allman Report, a show on ABC’s St. Louis affiliate. “It’s not even just the far left, it’s everyone: it’s liberals, it’s the far left, it’s the left in general — hypocrisy just runs so deep it’s sick.” She went into more detail on an Instagram post, where she wrote: “This is what some of you so-called ‘loving’ and ‘tolerant’ liberals have allowed and promoted.”
Trump and his supporters have pegged the news media as the “enemy of the American people,” while members of his administration wage war against each other using outlets like the New Yorker. Outspoken figures like Tomi Lahren and Alex Jones bemoan the media as a vehicle for liberal ideas—and paint paint outlets like InfoWars as guardians of the truth. Emerging is a group of Trump-loving students and parents, like Gavin and Christina Cortina, who understand how to wield their stories to demonstrate how toxic liberal ideals really are. Conservative sites are all too happy to provide coverage, flinging these figures to fringe alt-right fame in the process.
On a number of conservative blogs, both son and mother Cortina instantly became a symbol of the left’s hypocritical tolerance for censorship and violence as long as they’re used to confront conservative, Trumpian ideologies. Christina appeared on local news programs with a mission to spotlight liberal hypocrisy and prove that Trump’s supporters “aren’t just a bunch of white supremacists, bigot, sexist, hoosier douchebags from the midwest.” She absorbed abuse from commenters on some sites, but also admits that her public profile has been burnished by all the press post-Gavin’s incident. “That’s absolutely been a side effect of it,” she says. “It’s really helped me understand—I know it sounds cheesy—but that I have a voice.”
Since the incident, she’s joined a group called Right Side News as a contributor was a nominee in Hotties for Trump’s “March Madmad Tournament 2017.” Cortina’s case isn’t unique, though: there are a number of students across conservative media who have allegedly worn Trump gear, suffered for it, and been held up as examples of the left’s ruthlessness. And while Cortina has benefited from the ordeal, she isn’t happy with how her story was told across the spectrum—and she’s taken issue with conservative sites as well. “Everybody just lies to fit their own narrative,” she says, seemingly unaware that the same charge could be leveled at her.
Inspired by a trove of stories about bans and stern suggestions to students that they leave their MAGA gear at home, I initially set out to explore how campuses are dealing with Trump apparel on school grounds. Gavin Cortina was allegedly beaten up for wearing a Trump hat; at one New Jersey high school, Trump slogans were reportedly photoshopped out of the yearbook.
I wanted to know: Do schools genuinely need to forbid their students from wearing Trump paraphernalia? And just as schools have struggled to police students who are bullying others using Trump’s words, how are administrations dealing with verbal and physical altercations provoked by conservative viewpoints? Where does a school’s need for a peaceful learning environment end and the potential for censorship begin? Even The Daily Wire, the site founded by former Breitbart editor Ben Shapiro, can potentially see “parents [complaining] that pro-Trump apparel constitutes hate speech.”
The answer wasn’t as simple as finding banned Trump gear, though, because, in speaking to a number of schools, students, parents, and administrators, I didn’t find a school that outright barred it from campus, despite what many conservative sites have reported. Instead, I discovered people and media outlets speaking out on the subject in ways that seem to align with their preferred narratives.
Connor Mullen, who wore Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again hat to South Portland High School, was aware of how his situation could be weaponized. Starting in April 2016, Mullen was teased by classmates; a teacher reportedly said to him, “Thank God you can’t vote.” Mullen tells me that fellow students call him racist and accuse him of hating immigrants. The school’s administration suggested, according to him, that he ditch the hat if he wants the bullying to end, but Mullen still wears it. When I ask him if there’s something he wishes the school would do, he says, “Not push the liberal agenda.”
Armed with his story, Mullen reached out to the Trump campaign after the original incident. His reasoning echoes the Cortinas’. “I thought it would help because it shows that the ‘pro’ free speech people were trying to shut mine down,” he says.
In late 2015, a high school banned Trump gear from a football game because it could be interpreted as “offensive” or “racist,” according to Breitbart, echoing language in a student-run newspaper. The story was picked up on The Blaze, Daily Caller, and Gateway Pundit added a “WOW!” in its headline. The story even crawled all the way up to Fox News, which—along with every one of those outlets, but for Breitbart which claims it unsuccessfully reached out—apparently didn’t corroborate the report before publishing. (Fox News did not return a request for comment.) But none of them reported what I learned after calling Corona del Sol High School: the school’s official comment is that nothing was, or has been, forbidden. When I called the school, the woman who answered the phone laughed at me when I asked if there was any truth to the story. “Of course” there’s no rule about Trump apparel, she said. The faulty info about banned Trump apparel originated in an op-ed in the student-run newspaper. It’s since been deleted from the paper’s site.
In the summer of 2016, nine-year-old Logan Autry was allegedly banned from wearing a Trump hat to his Fresno, California elementary school. After attending a Trump rally, Autry wore it to school three days in a row until he was asked to remove the hat. Autry started making the rounds—a local station in Columbus, Ohio, ABC30, NBC11, and eventually ended up on the national NBC News site and the New York Post—and invoked the constitution. “The First Amendment says I can wear my hat,” he told NBC4i Columbus, WCMH-TV. His story blew up to such a degree that Trump reportedly sent Autry another signed hat after a dog used the original as a chew toy.
The story according to the school, though, is that Autry was briefly asked to remove that hat because it was causing a disruption. “However, to be clear, school officials never imposed an outright ban,” Fresno Unified School District’s superintendent Michael Hanson told the Los Angeles Times. “School officials reached out multiple times to the guardians to inform them that the student could continue to wear the hat as long there were no further incidents of disruption,” a school statement reads. “However, the guardians have not responded.” Autry’s family, however, says that administrators never reached out about the hat.
Incorrect or incomplete original stories clouding out corrections isn’t unusual, though. In the case of Parkway’s Gavin Cortina, misinformation quickly spread way beyond Chesterfield, Missouri and became a galvanizing force for those on Cortina’s side. The district was inundated with calls from people screaming profanely into the phone about how it bungled the aftermath of the fight on the bus. A representative for the school tells me that almost none of the calls were actually coming from the Missouri area, but instead from places all over the country.
The facts here can stand in the way of anything worth getting riled up about. Even the most severe instances are limited in scope: in most cases, students, parents, and administrators agree that Trump gear can stay at home for a brief period of time. When I ask Christina Cortina about the severity of the fight, she says that if the kids were brawling over something other than politics, like a girl, maybe, “it wouldn’t have been a big deal,” she says. “I would have been like, ‘Suck it up, bro.'”
Free speech has always had its limitations—and determining what’s allowed gets even thornier when it’s done on a school campus. Even in cases where students were asked not to wear Trump gear, it’s possible their schools are in the clear: it’s legal to prevent students from wearing something if it’s proven to be a disruption.
Henry R. Kaufman, a First Amendment lawyer who’s done work in the educational field, says that while it would be very hard for the courts to entertain the concept that the President is so disruptive his apparel needs to be banned, he could see it happening. “Wearing Trump clothes could be disruptive in particular environments,” says Kaufman when I ask if the clothing could pose a problem in places like California or the south of Texas given Trump’s deportation policies. But historically, disruption has been a tricky standard to meet. The United States Supreme Court ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District(1969), the landmark case for free speech at schools, says that “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
These more recent cases will likely never sniff Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s robe, though. Most of the ones I encountered in the media involve either a suspected lone wolf—like the New Jersey high school’s Photoshopgate, which resulted in the suspension of the teacher who advised the yearbook class—or kids getting teased for wearing something Trump-related and then being asked to remove it because it’s caused a distraction. These confrontations are distressing, but they aren’t proof of a large-scale conspiracy by schools to brainwash children with liberal values. Even a teacher (who wished to remain anonymous) who works at a school that made local headlines in Virginia for the way a student wearing Trump apparel was allegedly “mistreated” said she herself hasn’t witnessed any students dressed this way. However, she did write back to say she’s heard students talking about how they’d seen instances of students saying racist things to black and Latinx students after the election.
Raquel Hernandez, who worked as a fifth grade math teacher at the predominately Latinx Stand Watie Elementary School in Trump-leaning state Oklahoma, says that she also didn’t see much Trump apparel on campus. Instead, according to Hernandez, it was mostly teachers who stickered their cars with Trump endorsements and made off-color comments to students about issues like abortion. “Too many of you people use it as a form of birth control,” Hernandez recalls a teacher telling a student. And in Georgia, a third grade teacher who asked to remain anonymous, says she’s never seen students wearing political apparel. “Although they do repeat their parents’ political opinions,” she says.
Many students’ everyday lives aren’t affected by politics. An elementary schooler in Massachusetts who has a Trump supporter in her class says it wasn’t really a big deal. She says that while a kid with a Trump shirt did spark lunchroom debates and a new seating arrangement where MAGA kids occasionally sat at a separate table, things always fell back into place without any residual hurt feelings. “People kept friends,” Elizabeth says. “They’d talk about it and then maybe they’d sit at different lunch tables and then they’d be back to being best friends again.” She also says that most of the Trump supporters didn’t have much to say about Trump beyond calling him great, and probably supported him “because their parents liked him.”
It’s important to let kids express themselves at school when it doesn’t cause other people harm, but it’s just as important for outlets to report the full story. Think back to Gavin Cortina’s fight on the Parkway bus: before it was reported as the latest battle in the culture wars, Gavin’s mother explains, the fight actually started because Gavin told a classmate to stop talking about her personal politics. “My son was like, ‘That’s kind of inappropriate conversation,'” says Christina. She would spend the next days on television defending her son’s freedom of speech and right to express himself.