The third of four public forums on Standardized School Attire drew heavy criticism of the proposal, which is often described as more than a dress code but less than a uniform.
"It is not right to tell anyone what to wear," said Connie Hasty, one of the speakers.
The forum was held Thursday night at the Community High School auditorium. All of the speakers Thursday night were in opposition to SSA, and some of them expressed their points passionately, drawing applause from others in attendance.
One school administrator, who is not part of the decision-making process on this issue, later told the Times-Gazette he knew of a private citizen who attended planning to speak in favor of SSA but who kept quiet because she felt intimidated by the overall atmosphere at the forum.
The school board has circulated a draft SSA proposal, although board members say it is just a basis for discussion and could well be revised before the final vote. The proposal disallows T-shirts and jeans in favor of solid-colored collared shirts and khaki-style pants (or skirts) in a limited number of colors.
Supporters of SSA claim it improves school atmosphere and safety and helps to downplay class differences between students. Opponents dispute those claims and say SSA unfairly penalizes students and parents.
The first public forum, held in November at Liberty School, was divided between SSA supporters and opponents, but December's forum at Cascade was, like last night's, unanimously opposed.
"Does this [forum] matter?" asked Mark Smith, one of Thursday's participants. "Or is this a foregone conclusion?"
"This is not a foregone conclusion," said Bedford County Board of Education Chairman Barry Cooper.
The final forum will be held Feb. 11 at Harris Middle School. Unlike the first three forums, it will not be held on the same night as a school board meeting and therefore will not be scheduled as tightly.
The school board hopes to take an up-or-down vote on the issue at its Feb. 21 meeting.
For this week's forum, the school board had prepared a "frequently-asked questions" (FAQ) document based on discussion at the first two forums. Cooper said it didn't represent a formal board position paper -- since the board hasn't voted to adopt SSA -- but that it is meant to facilitate discussion by explaining the reasons the board felt SSA was worth studying.
Later, at the end of the forum, Cooper said that many of the issues raised by commenters were already covered by the FAQ, and urged those attending to take it home and read it.
The opponents who spoke Thursday night raised a number of issues.
Chuck Craig of Bell Buckle noted a prohibition on hats or headgear which extended to "school functions," which Craig assumed included sporting events. He ridiculed the idea of not being able to wear a cap to a baseball or football game. Later, School Superintendent Ed Gray said "school functions" referred to required academic activities and said the SSA policy clearly does not apply to sporting events or other extracurricular activities.
Craig also noted that SSA supporters justify the prohibition on outerwear on the basis of security -- loose garments can be used to conceal weapons. However, blazers and suit coats are allowed under the policy -- and they could conceal weapons just as easily, he said.
"I could probably stand here for 20 minutes and pick this apart finding things that don't make sense," said Craig.
The prohibition on wearing outerwear into the classroom ignores problems with keeping some rooms at a comfortable temperature, said one speaker.
"It is freezing outside, and some of the classrooms are freezing too," she said.
Several speakers claimed or implied that SSA is driven by problems with dress code enforcement at Central High School and said it's unfair to penalize Cascade and Community as a result.
"The current dress code seems to work fine at Cascade High School," said Craig.
"If someone has holes in their jeans, we put duct tape over it," said Delene Peters.
SSA opponents frequently say that what is needed is better enforcement of existing dress codes.
"If you can't enforce what you've got," said Amanda Reed, "then what's the point of starting anew?"
SSA supporters claim it's actually easier to enforce SSA -- a short list of what students can wear -- than to enforce a long and frequently-changing list of what students can't wear.
"Administrators could literally spend their entire day trying to enforce such a code...." states the FAQ. "Those systems who have implemented SSA tell us that enforcement of dress code is much easier with SSA."
One speaker, who did not state his name, recalled being sent home for having facial hair when he was a student. He said that the "hippie" generation of the 1960s was criticized for its dress and appearance, but ultimately added something to society.
"There's a lot of good contributions that came out of that generation," he said.
Chad Dennis quoted several of the mottos and principles from the school system's own web site which he implied were in opposition to SSA, such as "The freedom to create stimulates growth."
The FAQ says that SSA isn't intended to stifle freedom of expression, which it claims can still be exercised in many other ways.
Dennis said that it's part of growing up to have to learn to get along with all types of people. He noted the ideals of personal discipline, decision-making and accountability cited on the school system's web site.
Metro Nashville, which adopted SSA last fall, was one of the school systems visited by Bedford County school board members during their research, but Dennis said Metro is a poor role model.
"Metro Schools is a train wreck of an educational system," he said.
In addition to the opportunity to speak, those attending the forum were given comment cards, a new addition to the process. Also, Community High School student Marissa Jones presented school board members with letters from students about the issue.