"Throwback Thursdays" are a popular Spirit Week event at many high schools, designed to let students dress up in vintage outfits, and help break the winter doldrums.
But when a student went costumed as a slave last week at Loudoun County's Heritage High School, some classmates were surprised.
News4 learned about the costume from the outraged mom of another Heritage High student. She didn't want her identify revealed for fear of repercussions for her daughter.
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She said that when her daughter got home last Thursday and told her about the costume, she immediately asked to see a picture.
"He had this white shirt on with red stains on it as if he'd been whipped," said the mother. "That was blood and on the back it said 'Property of Heritage High School' and he had a 200-count bag of cotton balls that he was scattering as he walked the halls. I was livid. I couldn't believe what I was hearing in 2015. Are you kidding me?"
She was even more surprised to learn the student was African American. The mother wondered why the student was allowed to wear the slave costume the entire day.
A school spokesman said Heritage High administrators greeted the student at the door last Thursday morning.
"They said, 'Look, you are really pushing the boundaries here. This is a tasteless costume. It's not disrupting the boundaries per se. Now if anybody [came] to us during the day with strong objections and says [it's] disruptive, then the costume comes off,'" said Wayde Byard, Loudoun County Schools spokesman.
Byard said the student was barred from competing in the costume content. The school's administration determined the costume didn't not violate the dress code, so it was a matter of the student exercising his free speech rights.
"There is a very fine line here between free speech and good taste. As we know, free speech is not always tasteful speech," said Byard. "The student was making a statement. There was no disruption. Students rolled their eyes as you might expect, but nobody said, 'That's horribly offensive and this is disrupting my day.'"
Byard said the decision might have been different if the student had been white.
"Had it been a white student instead of an African-American student, obviously that might have incited some racial tension. That might have been a different story."
Heritage High School senior Bianca Jackson says the costume surprised her.
"I thought it was really inappropriate for Throwback Thursday," said Jackson "I think people are kind of like, 'What are you doing?' It's something you don't joke about."
The mother who told News4 about the costume said she plans to write a letter of complaint to school administrators and the superintendent. She fears allowing this costume will open the door to more troublesome displays.
"What if someone comes dressed as the Holocaust [sic] or the Klan? Is that then considered inappropriate? Where is the line? You are dealing with teenagers. You have to establish some boundaries," she said.
Byard said a Klan costume or student dressed in swastikas would be in violation of dress code policy because that would constitute hate speech.
"I think the principal's job day to day is to sort out what is disruptive and what is not and I'm sure if the line is crossed the principal will reprimand students," said Byard.
The mom said that, at minimum, administrators missed a teachable moment, suggesting they could have kicked off a discussion among students.
"They could have turned this around to a learning opportunity," she said. "They could have done a number of things and they did nothing. That's unacceptable."