LARAMIE, Wyo. – A $4 rubber bracelet meant to raise breast cancer awareness has done that and more: Students nationwide are wearing the "I (heart) boobies" wristbands, and running afoul of school administrators.
Schools from California to Florida have banned the bracelets because they believe the "boobies" language is inappropriate.
The bracelets are marketed by a California-based nonprofit created to raise breast cancer awareness among youth. The Keep A Breast Foundation has sold 2 million of the bracelets so far, with the money going to breast cancer research and education programs.
The group believes a bracelet with a catchy, envelope-pushing slogan such as "I (heart) boobies" is a better way to teach kids about breast cancer than more traditional methods like pink ribbons.
Kollin West, a 14-year-old student at Laramie Junior High School, is one student who got in trouble over the bracelets.
The ninth-grader began wearing his bracelet after noticing the number of women being treated for breast cancer at a hospital where his father was undergoing chemotherapy for testicular cancer.
"I just thought it would be a good idea to support breast cancer," said West, who also wears a bracelet that says, "Check Yourself."
School officials objected, ordering West to wear his "boobies" bracelet inside-out because they considered the bracelet's wording inappropriate. West pointed out that girls at his school, the local high school and even an elementary school were wearing them without a problem.
Officials, he insisted, "were taking it in an immature way."
The dispute drew the attention of the Wyoming chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which argued West had a free speech right to wear the bracelet. School officials ultimately agreed to allow him to wear it except in the presence of two teachers - one a victim of breast cancer and another who lost a relative to the disease - who found the "boobies" reference objectionable.
Bracelet wearers, officials added, must sincerely support the breast cancer cause and not use them to demean women.
A high school in Elmira, Ore., also banned them, saying the message was lost on most students who wore them: ninth-grade boys. In Sioux Falls, S.D., O'Gorman High School principal Kyle Groos said the wristband language "trivializes the issue."
Not so, argues the Keep A Breast Foundation, which was founded 10 years ago.
Marketing manager Kimmy McAtee argued the bracelets compel kids and adults to talk about a disease that the American Cancer Society estimates will kill an estimated 39,800 women and 390 men this year in the United States.
"A lot of kids don't want to do pink ribbons, and they're not going to eat for yogurt labels," she said, referring to one firm that donates money to breast cancer research when consumers return pink-colored lids from its product. "And these bracelets are a conversation starter that I think the pink ribbons didn't have in a younger demographic."
It's not the first controversial breast cancer-related marketing effort in October - National Breast Cancer Arewareness Month. For example, Mike's Hard Lemonade released a pink-colored liquor beverage to mark the month and benefit the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, but some found the campaign offensive because alcohol has been linked to an increased risk of cancer.
For McAtee, the breast cancer bracelets have served their purpose by stirring conversation and focusing attention on the health issue.
"Keep A Breast really feels that 'boobies' is not a four-letter word," she said. "We're using a word that's not scary, and I think that is why the media have really started talking about us."
"We've really been able to talk to so many more people because of this," she added.
In Laramie, Kollin West said none of his classmates has made fun of him or joked about the wording.
Kelly Carroll, principal of Laramie Junior High School, and Suzanne Perry, assistant superintendent of Albany County District 1, did not return repeated calls for comment.
School administrators long have struggled to balance dress codes with free speech rights, notes Kitty Porterfield, spokeswoman for the American Association of School Administrators.
Dress codes are intended to promote decorum and respect among students, and hemlines, necklines, hair, shorts, changing fads, toys, clothing and accessories with gang connotations have all been matters of contention, she said.
In Colorado Springs, Colo., officials at a middle school told students in September to conceal religious jewelry, prompting a complaint from a student who wanted to wear a cross necklace outside his shirt. The American Center for Law and Justice threatened to file a free speech lawsuit against the school district.
School officials later modified the order to affect only rosaries, which they say some gangs use as a unity symbol. They were supported by the local Catholic diocese, which declared this week that schools should let students wear religious jewelry but can ban gang members from wearing rosaries.