SOUTH PORTLAND — When Connor Mullen started wearing a baseball cap bearing Donald Trump’s campaign slogan to South Portland High School three weeks ago, he expected other students to taunt him.

But when two adults who work in the school made fun of him, including a teacher who Mullen said blurted “Thank God you can’t vote,” he decided to speak out. Friday, he voiced his concerns to administrators and was told that while he was free to wear the hat, which reads “Make America Great Again,” he might want to consider leaving it at home to avoid further problems.

To Mullen, the advice seemed to contradict what he’d heard from teachers over the years, that Americans have a right to their own political opinions, and we must all respect that.

“I knew kids would pick on me about it, that’s just kids being kids, but when the adults started doing it I thought that’s problematic,” said Mullen, 16 and a sophomore. “This is a school that preaches equality.”

Over the weekend, news of the hat controversy was reported by WCSH-TV, where a family member of one of Mullen’s friends works. Knowing people would be talking about him and looking out for him, Mullen wore the hat again Monday. It was knocked off his head at least once, and one student told him “I’m glad you’re being bullied.”

Two students were seen at the school Monday wearing “Make America Great Again” T-shirts, in an apparent show of support for Mullen, several students said.


Mullen’s father, Peter, who works as an education technician in Cape Elizabeth schools, has advised his son to use the hat controversy to practice civility.

“I told him to remember to treat those kids (who might harass him) with the same respect you expect to be treated with,” Peter Mullen said.


Superintendent Ken Kunin said Monday that school officials first became aware of Mullen being hassled by other students and adults Friday, when a teacher reported that a female student had removed Mullen’s hat from his head and thrown it in a trash can. Mullen said that when he talked to Assistant Principal Phil Rossetti about the incident that day, he told him about the teacher who remarked on his hat.

Mullen said he also told Rossetti about a discussion in one of his classes a few days earlier. When the topic of uninformed voters came up, an education technician took Mullen’s hat off his head and held it up, evoking laughter from his classmates.

Kunin said school administrators “did follow up” with the teacher and the education technician, but didn’t elaborate. He said disciplinary action was taken against the student who threw the hat in the trash, but he wouldn’t be more specific.


“We said, of course, ‘That’s not OK. You don’t do that,’ ” Kunin said. “We defend our students’ First Amendment rights.”

Kunin referenced the landmark 1969 Supreme Court decision on Tinker v. Des Moines, when the justices sided with high school students who were suspended for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. The high court ruled 7-2 that students’ free speech should be protected, stating 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.”

The court decision gives school officials some latitude in limiting student demonstrations, Kunin said, but they must prove to be a “material and substantial disruption” of school activities.

Kunin said Principal Ryan Caron sent an email to the faculty Monday reminding them that the school should be open to and respectful of students’ ideas and speech. Kunin said he experienced similar challenges during the 2008 presidential election, when he was principal of Deering High School in Portland. He reminded students who supported then-candidate Barack Obama to respect students who wore T-shirts supporting Sen. John McCain.

“This is a beautiful problem to have in a school because it’s a chance to practice democracy,” Kunin said. “It’s a great example of why we need public schools. You don’t all of a sudden wake up and know how to act in a democracy. You learn how to act in a democracy.”

Caron said he also spoke to Mullen on Friday and wanted him to understand that he could continue to wear his cap, and that he should let administrators know if anyone else harasses him in any way. Caron said Rossetti and Mullen talked about “the charged political climate and the attention that the hat might draw.” Caron said the assistant principal “suggested that (Mullen) might consider not wearing the hat.” Kunin called the message on the hat “protected speech.”



South Portland High is no stranger to free-speech debates.

A little over a year ago, three students gained national attention when they tried, by rewording part of the morning announcements, to make it clear to students and faculty that reciting the Pledge of Allegiance is optional under state and federal law.

The months-long effort resulted in the faculty leadership committee unanimously approving last April a new pledge procedure proposed by Lily SanGiovanni, Gaby Ferrell and Morrigan Turner that said: “I now invite you to rise and join me for the Pledge of Allegiance.”

Outside the school Monday, several students said they felt Mullen has the right to wear the hat, even though they personally don’t like Trump or his message. There is no prohibition against wearing hats in the school.

“I don’t think he deserves (to be bullied), he hasn’t done anything,” said Gavin Damian-Loring, a senior standing with a half-dozen other students. “It’s like saying you don’t like someone else’s shirt so you have the right to punch them in the face.”


But Caity Gaven, another senior in the group, said she thought Mullen wore the hat because he was “trying to start something.”

“I think if you’re wearing a Trump hat around here, you know people aren’t going to like it,” Gaven said.

Mullen, who plays on the soccer and hockey teams, said he started wearing the hat because “I like the slogan, I like Donald Trump, and I like hats.”

Mullen says he wants a career in the military or law enforcement, or both, and supports Trump largely because of things he’s said about the people who work in those fields.

“I want a job like that where you can help people, and I’ve heard Trump say how important he thinks veterans and (people in law enforcement) are,” Mullen said.

Peter Mullen said his son attended Trump’s Portland rally in March mostly because he’d never seen a presidential candidate before. But at the event, “something clicked” for the teenager, his father said. Peter Mullen supports Ted Cruz, Trump’s rival for the Republican nomination, and he’s talked to his son about the differences between the two candidates.


“I’ve told him I don’t like the delivery of (Trump’s) message,” Peter Mullen said.

Connor Mullen says he’s tried to call the Trump campaign to let officials know about the treatment he’s been getting for wearing a Trump hat in school. He thinks the information might help his candidate. The Trump campaign didn’t respond Monday night to a request for comment on this story.

Mullen says he’ll keep wearing the hat everywhere. He says if he stops, then those who belittled him for expressing a political opinion will have won.

“And I don’t want them to win,” he said.

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard contributed to this report.


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