Virginia Attorney General Mark L. Earley criticized the American Civil Liberties Union yesterday for warning school superintendents not to crack down on student expression because of concerns about school safety.

In a letter to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Paul D. Stapleton, Earley (R) complained about letters sent last month by Virginia ACLU Executive Director Kent Willis to local superintendents around the state. Willis wrote to the superintendents that they should use "caution and restraint" when faced with students who exhibit such behavior as dyeing their hair blue.

"I view this as an annual and misguided attempt by the ACLU to micro-manage our schools and to intimidate schoolteachers and administrators with threats of litigation," Earley said. "If our school administrators tell us that certain behavior detracts from the learning environment, we should give them, not the ACLU, the benefit of the doubt."

Earley's letter came the same day that a Chesterfield County middle school student was allowed to return to school after being sent home Tuesday because she had dyed her hair pink. The ACLU sent a letter to the school's principal threatening to sue if the girl was not allowed back in school, the Associated Press reported. The eighth-grader, Veronique Jade Bunk, said she was told that her hair color would distract other students.

David Botkins, a spokesman for Earley, said that the attorney general was aware of the Chesterfield incident but that it was not the reason he sent the letter to Stapleton.

Botkins said Earley was concerned that school superintendents would be intimidated by Willis's letter after Earley and a state task force had spent months drafting recommendations for handling safety concerns. One recommendation, Earley noted in his letter, was that "schools should consider school dress codes or school uniforms to foster discipline and morale."

"No one understands the importance of observing the legal rights of students more than you," Earley wrote to Stapleton. "But the ACLU continues to disregard our children's right to learn in a safe and productive environment."

Willis did not return a reporter's telephone call seeking comment.

In his letter to local school superintendents, Willis noted that officials in Surry County, Va., had to pay more than $25,000 to ACLU attorneys who successfully defended a high school sophomore suspended for dyeing his hair blue.

Willis also noted the case of a Manassas middle school student who was given a 10-day suspension for writing, in response to an assignment on school improvements, that he would "blow up" the school so that it could be replaced with a more modern structure. Willis said that the student's words were meant only for his teacher and were "an unequivocably positive statement about creating a better educational environment."

"The crackdowns on student expression this past spring, fueled by reaction to [the shootings at a Colorado high school near] Littleton, were unprecedented in our state's history and should not be repeated," Willis said in his letter.

A survey released by the American Tort Reform Association yesterday found that most principals are increasingly concerned about liability issues. More than half said that they had been forced to modify or eliminate programs such as driver's education, shop, recess or dances, for fear of lawsuits.

"Whenever we plan for anything in a school today, our first consideration is how to avoid a lawsuit," said Vincent L. Ferrandino, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, commenting on the survey results.

Staff Writer Amy Argetsinger contributed to this report.