Bedford County Board of Education members will travel to Chattanooga this spring to research the idea of a standardized dress code for middle and high school students.
The issue was discussed during the board's monthly meeting on Thursday night.
A "uniform dress code," as it is referred to, is something less than an official school uniform but considerably stricter than existing dress codes. For example, such a dress code might require navy blue or khaki skirts or pants, along with collared shirts, tucked in to the pants or skirt. All clothing must be properly-fitting, not the baggy or low-riding styles favored by some teens.
Proponents of such a dress code say that a standardized appearance has several benefits:
Safety: Baggy clothing can be used to conceal weapons or other contraband, and various colors can be used as signs of gang membership. A uniform dress code addresses both problems.
Class distinctions: Standardized dress can help to minimize distinctions between the students who can afford designer clothes and those who cannot, at least during the hours when students are in class. By law, any uniform dress code must be designed and implemented so that the clothing is affordable.
"Standard dress does not have to be expensive," said School Superintendent Ed Gray. He said it could cost as little as $50 to outfit a student. Many items could be bought at thrift stores if necessary, he said. Some families could end up saving considerable money if students don't need to wear designer clothes to school.
Attitude: Proponents claim that a more professional appearance actually has an impact on student attitude. Suzanne Hicks of the school system central office, who has researched the issue extensively for the board, said schools or school systems which have adopted such a dress code report that students seem to take school more seriously. It may also help prepare students for work or for colleges which have dress codes.
Enforcement: Enforcement of existing dress codes requires some judgment calls, which leaves the door open for one student to be treated differently from another or for one school to have stricter enforcement than another. A uniform dress code takes many of those judgment calls out of the equation. Gray said school administrators spend too much time under the current system worrying about dress code enforcement.
Mt. Juliet has adopted a uniform dress code, as has Chattanooga Central and a high school in Cleveland. Nashville will consider such a dress code later this month after having held a series of public meetings on the topic.
Board members will visit the Chattanooga and Cleveland schools in May to research how the program has worked there. If they decide to move forward, they may hold public meetings or visit PTO meetings to discuss the program with parents and students in various communities around the county. They might even set up a special web site with information about the program and a chance to respond.
Nashville held four different public meetings broken down by topic: background, safety, cost and legalities.
Board member Dixie Parker said she has already talked about the idea with some of her constituents.
"I have yet to hear a negative," said Parker.
Several high school students were in attendance at Thursday night's meeting to report on their participation in the Student Congress on Policies in Education (SCOPE), a program sponsored by the Tennessee School Boards Association. School Board chair Barry Cooper took the opportunity to ask the students about their views on the dress code issue. Kelsey Dennis was of two minds on the topic -- she understands the arguments in favor of it but wouldn't look forward to participating.
"I don't think I'd want to abide by it," said Dennis, "but I think it's a pretty good idea."
If the school system wanted to extend the same requirements to teachers, so that they would reinforce the dress code by example, it would have to be negotiated into the labor contract between the county and Bedford County Education Association. School board members said they expect that teachers would be in favor of the idea and would want to support it.