A Winnipeg student has been reprimanded for wearing a hat school officials deemed "gang clothing," even though it's part of a trendy teen clothing line sold across the country. 

"I was flabbergasted … that's not our thing. I'm not a gang member, I don't have family that are gang members, my kid is not a gang member. We don't associate with gang members … I don't live that lifestyle," the teen's mother, Victoria Walterson, told Go Public.

Walterson said she took her 17-year-old son Cadan to the local mall and his favourite store, Urban Planet.

Victoria Walterson

Victoria Walterson says she had no idea her son's new hat, purchased from Urban Planet at the local mall, would cause so much trouble. (CBC)

"Almost everything in this store was a black and white pattern … my son went wild. He was like, 'Mom can you buy me these?' I didn't think it was going to be an issue," she said.

Walterson bought her son a baseball hat with a black and white bandana pattern, which he loved and wore everywhere, she said.

"He gets to school with it on and he is pulled into the office and he is told what he is wearing is gang paraphernalia and that it is a direct violation of Winnipeg School Division's attire policy and he is suspended," Walterson said.

"He was really upset about it."

Gang insignia 'will not be tolerated'

Go Public tried to contact the principal from Daniel McIntyre Collegiate to ask him about the policy, but he didn't respond to our inquiries.

A spokesperson from the Winnipeg School Division told Go Public the baseball cap was confiscated, but there was no suspension for wearing it, "just a reminder not to wear it again."  

The Winnipeg School Division's code of conduct says "gang involvement or gang insignia will not be tolerated on school sites or WSD property." 

'He's not a gang member, he's a special needs student.' - Victoria Walterson, mother of Cadan

Cadan Walterson is in Grade 12, but his mom said he is "intellectually disabled" and functions socially at a Grade 6 level and academically at a Grade 3 level. She said that just underscores what she calls a "ridiculous" waste of school time and resources.

"He's not a gang member, he's a special needs student in a special ed class. He was really upset about it," Walterson said.

School officials not trained

According to Winnipeg School Division spokeswoman Radean Carter, the "no gang insignia" rule was added in 2014 "at the direction of Manitoba Education, when all Manitoba School Divisions added a statement to their codes of conduct that gang-related activity would not be tolerated in schools."

Bandana Hat

After Cadan wore a similar hat with this popular bandana print to school, it was deemed 'gang clothing' and confiscated. (Amazon.com)

"Gang insignia is included as part of our code of conduct to protect students from inadvertently putting themselves or other students at risk," Carter wrote in an email to Go Public.

Manitoba Education's code of conduct does include a clause banning gang membership, but nothing about clothing or insignia.

Go Public checked with major school boards across the country and found that's the case almost everywhere, including in Canada's biggest cities, which, like Winnipeg, have gang problems. Our investigation found neither Vancouver, Montreal nor Toronto have gang clothing or insignia bans.

Urban Planet clothing

'We are selling mainstream fashion, not gang clothing,' says YM Inc. (Urban Planet)

Winnipeg teachers aren't trained to identify gang clothing. Carter said school officials rely on "school resource officers (members of Winnipeg Police Service) who are in our schools regularly … [for] guidance on safety issues such as gang involvement/risk."

Clothing company calls it 'mainstream fashion'

The clothing line is made by YM Inc. and sold in stores across the country. The same pattern is sold in Urban Planet, Stitches and Urban Behavior stores. We reached out to the company asking what it thinks about its clothing line being banned.

"We are selling mainstream fashion, not gang clothing. The bandana print is a very popular print right now for many retailers and we are keeping with a trend that can be found on everything from running shoes to women's swimwear in shopping malls across North America."

Gang-wear rule 'extremely outdated'

Kathleen Buddle, an academic with the University of Manitoba who studies gang culture, called the school board's policy about the clothing pattern "extremely outdated."

"Maybe 10 to 15 years ago, that was a pattern that was identified with the Manitoba Warriors. The gangs have evolved and they've adapted to police's identifying measures, and they have found ways to hide their membership, so they are not actively seeking police attention by wearing gang colours any more."

Kathleen Buddle

Kathleen Buddle, an academic who studies gang culture and insignia, says the school board policy is 'extremely outdated.' (CBC)

She said disciplining a student for wearing the pattern doesn't make sense, since it's very unlikely any active gang member is attending school regularly.

"Right now it's an empty signifier. It means nothing. Anybody can wear it," Buddle said.

And they do. The pattern can be found in fashion magazines, on celebrities and in other stores. Buddle encourages the school board to rethink its policy.


CBC News Investigates: Stories, videos, photos and more

Submit your story ideas

Go Public is an investigative news segment on CBC-TV, radio and the web.

We tell your stories and hold the powers that be accountable.

We want to hear from people across the country with stories they want to make public.

Submit your story ideas at Go Public.

Follow @CBCGoPublic on Twitter.

With files from Manjula Dufresne