“I just didn’t expect to see that coming from Oceanside,” Nicole Swerdloff, a 2014 Oceanside High School graduate, said about the piece of fabric that has been the subject of social media conversations over the past few weeks.
Much like last year’s presidential election seemed to divide the country, a white tank top, designed by what is being described as a small group of seniors at Oceanside High School, split “the Nation.” Sailor nation, that is.
The tank top’s light blue “17” is overshadowed by Oceanside’s signature “O.” The letter — associated with the school district — is made up of several dozen words and phrases. Some are incomprehensible to many without a Google search. Others have been deemed offensive.
Swerdloff, who just finished her junior year at Pace University, where she is studying education, expressed her opinions on the shirt in a May 27 blog post for the Odyssey: “The Oceanside Shirt That Divided ‘The Nation.’”
The shirt includes words and phrases like “douchebag,” “nattys” and “losing brain cells,” as well as others that many community members have labeled as derogatory toward African-Americans and people with disabilities: “n****” and “spednation.”
“I was proud to be a Sailor,” Swerdloff told the Herald. “I still am, but this just made me angry.”
Other terms on the shirt seem to reference drugs, drinking and sexual acts. Pictures of it were circulated on social media after unnamed students sold them online before Senior Skip Day, on May 26. Some students don senior shirts that day, as well as at school during the weeks leading up to graduation.
The school district released a statement on its website that day in response to the shirt, which said that it was not authorized by the high school nor by the senior class.
“That some students made an unfortunate and poor choice in no way represents this school district, its young people or the upstanding families of this community,” the district stated. “This entire matter will be handled accordingly.”
OHS Principal Geraldine DeCarlo began receiving emails about the shirt on May 25, according to Donna Kraus, a spokeswoman for the school district.
Kraus added that students are not allowed to wear the shirt at school, and that, to her knowledge, nobody had. “This was definitely done outside of school, but it connects the school because it’s a shirt that alludes to the fact that they’re seniors and uses that “O” . . . associated with our sports and our school spirit.”
As awareness of the shirt spread, members of the Oceanside community took to social media to either condemn or defend it. A Facebook post by Jenn Pogor emphasized that the shirts are not meant to represent Oceanside as a whole, but a group of friends, and claimed that people in the community are trying to ruin the lives and futures of the students who made the shirts.
“It’s a shirt full of inside jokes that yes, may be inappropriate, but are meant for the group of kids spending senior cut day together, for them to laugh at and reminisce while their final days as seniors come to an end,” she wrote. “I’m sure if you think back, most of your days in high school weren’t so innocent either, and I’m even more positive most have taken part in an inappropriate joke in their life.”
Screenshots of a text conversation also circulated online, which appeared to show a girl — believed to be involved in creating the shirt — defending the use of the N-word. “If your circle doesn’t accept that white people say the "N" word that is not my problem at all,” the text stated. “…And just to educate you, I have African American friends and they do not take offense to it at all because I’m not ‘degrading their culture’ in [any] way or form because they know it’s [not] my intent and it’s not personal.”
“I get freedom of speech, and I get that they’re seniors. They’re going to make mistakes,” Swerdloff told the Herald. “They’re teenagers, but the N-word is not something you can really defend.”
She added that some of the senior shirts made by different friend groups while she was a student at OHS had inappropriate undertones, but never reached this level.
The drug and alcohol references on the shirt sparked a conversation among members of the Oceanside Substance Abuse Free Environment, or SAFE, Coalition, at its meeting on May 31.
Sara Dowler, an OHS health teacher and chairwoman of the district’s Drug Advisory/Wellness Council, who helped start the coalition (which unofficially launched at an addiction awareness event in March), said the shirt is a reminder that its efforts are necessary.
“This proves the data in the survey is correct that there is a culture of underage drinking and substance abuse,” Dowler said, …and one of the goals of the coalition is to change the environment to address this concern.”
The coalition, which plans to apply for a five-year, $625,000 grant next year, was formed in order to combat the drug and alcohol use, that has plagued the Oceanside community. In addition to more than a dozen overdose deaths of current and former residents in the past two years, last year’s youth development survey of Oceanside students — grades seven through 12 — showed a higher rate of underage drinking and marijuana use in Oceanside compared to certain neighboring communities.
More than 80 percent of seniors reported drinking alcohol, and about 55 percent said they had used marijuana in their life, according to the survey. More than half of students had reported having “been drunk” in the past month, and over 40 percent had used marijuana in that time, each about 30 percentage points higher than the state average.
“We’re definitely aware of it, but there’s just such a lack of caring within my grade really,” Oceanside senior Jason Denrich said at the SAFE meeting. “No one really cares about what’s going on outside of their little planet, which I don’t understand.
“…For them,” he continued, “they still go on living every weekend like it’s the last one, and that culture kind of needs to change. How we’re going to change it is a little iffy to me.”
Kraus did not give details about students involved in making the shirt or the potential disciplinary actions taken against them.
“They have to be held responsible because they are adults, or almost adults,” Swerdloff said, “… and they have to realize that when they do something like this, it’s going to follow them and there are going to be consequences.”