(T-G Photo by John I. Carney)
School board members also indicated that they might be willing to soften some portions of the current draft proposal, such as allowing young children to wear blue jeans, since they stand up better to playground abuse.
The forum was held Thursday night at Liberty School, prior to the regular monthly meeting of Bedford County Board of Education. Additional forums will be held at Cascade in December, Community in January and Harris Middle School in February.
The first half of the public comment period Thursday night was dominated by opponents of SSA, so much so that when Eric Hart stood to speak, he identified himself as a lone voice in support of the program. But he wasn't; his remarks seemed to open the door for others, so that the second half of the forum was dominated by SSA supporters.
But the divisions remain deep, and it didn't seem as if many minds were changed in either direction on Thursday night.
More than a dress code, less than a uniform, SSA eliminates T-shirts and blue jeans in favor of collared shirts and khakis. Local school board officials published a draft policy last month as a basis for discussion, with the intent of casting a final vote on SSA in February so that it could be adopted in the 2008-2009 school year.
Many of the critics of SSA said the school board should do more about enforcing the current dress code rather than adopting new requirements.
"I don't see it being enforced," said one parent, drawing applause from the crowd.
School Superintendent Ed Gray said that enforcing the current dress codes (each school sets its own) would be extremely time-consuming and leave teachers with less time to actually teach.
But wouldn't a stricter dress code be even harder to enforce?
No, said school board Chairman Barry Cooper. Because SSA is based on a short list of items that can be worn, instead of a long list of items that can't be worn, Cooper claimed it would be much simpler to enforce. Negatively-worded dress codes have to be constantly revised and updated to address new styles that weren't even thought of a few months earlier, he said, while SSA, because it's so limited, is much more stable.
Some parents agreed with the basic principle but wondered why blue jeans couldn't be made acceptable. Cooper said that he's leaning towards allowing jeans for children in younger grades, since they're out on the playground in their school clothes. But he said one of the purposes of SSA is to "level the playing field" between students of different socio-economic groups, and eliminating expensive designer jeans is part of that.
But some parents don't like the cookie-cutter approach.
"I think children and adults tend to perform better when they're comfortable," said one parent. "We're not all khaki and polo shirt people."
Robert Holtz is the father of some of the children who modeled SSA-compliant clothing during Thursday's forum. But he said he doesn't favor the color restrictions and thinks the proposal needs to be revised.
"I think the colors, the restrictions, are way too tight," said Holtz.
One of the supposed benefits of SSA and its color restrictions is that it discourages the use of color as a gang symbol and recruitment tool. Hart said he moved here from a small town in West Tennessee which considered SSA five years ago. It was turned down, and Hart said that when gangs moved into the area, they did so quickly.
"You don't have that problem now, but they're going to come," he said. Another speaker said gangs are already here, citing graffiti at the pencil plant where she works.
Another objection was over the fact that exceptions would be made for those whose religion requires a particular style of dress. One commenter said that since organized prayer has been banned from the school, it's unfair to make accomodations for those of other faiths.
One of the field trips local school board members made when researching SSA was to Glencliff High School in Nashville; Metro Nashville schools have adopted SSA beginning with this school year. But one parent noted having seen a TV report on SSA and noticing a child at Glencliff wearing saggy pants, one of the situations SSA is supposed to prevent. Critics also noted a recent incident in which a child took a gun to Glencliff as evidence that SSA doesn't create security.
Several parents complained about the restrictions on wearing outerwear to class, saying that some students get cold and would want to keep their jackets on.
Some parents complained about the expense of buying SSA-compliant clothing. One woman said her daughter would be a senior next year, and it made little sense to buy her a new wardrobe just for one school year.
But Katherine Cook said buying a few pairs of khaki pants and a few polo shirts would be a boon to parents compared to the designer clothing some teens wear.
"It would be cheaper to me," agreed Katrina Carlton, a mother of five. "It would be easier to do laundry."
"You will clothe your child cheaper than you will now," she said.
Two young women who identified themselves as Central High School students spoke in favor of the proposal. Chelsea Freeman said she "gets disgusted going through the hallways" at some of the clothing worn by her classmates. She also said that teasing over a student's appearance can trigger violence. She said she believes SSA would improve student attitudes.
"Most kids pick on kids for what they wear," said Emily Cook, a sophomore.
Substitute teacher Kathy Miller said SSA is necessary because of parental negligence.
"We as parents have dropped the ball," she said, citing low-cut shirts and low-riding jeans which students wear to school. "Our education is suffering."
School board member Glenn Forsee said he's spoken to a manager at Wal-Mart, who said the store could have sufficient quantities of SSA-compliant clothes in stock with four months' notice.
"That's very doable," said Forsee.
Gray noted that some Murfreesboro stores have displays of SSA-compliant clothing even though Rutherford County hasn't adopted SSA. Gray said that stores from Goodwill to J.C. Penney stock compliant clothing.
Some parents complained that compliant clothing might not be readily available in all sizes.
At the end of the forum, a row of students wearing SSA-compliant clothes was brought onto the stage to portray how SSA would look and show that there are a variety of possible styles even within the restrictions of SSA.
But some SSA opponents noted that one of the students participating in the demonstration had his shirt untucked, and another was wearing a shirt that just barely met the top of her pants, and therefore couldn't be tucked in. The opponents no doubt felt they were pointing out the absurdity of SSA, while supporters complained that the way in which that objection was delivered embarrassed those individual students in front of a crowd. It was an emotional end to what had been a spirited discussion.
The next scheduled forum will be Dec. 20 at Cascade, followed by Jan. 17, 2008, at Community and Feb. 11 at Harris, although the Harris date is listed as being tentative. The board plans to take an up-or-down vote on SSA at its Feb. 21 regular meeting.