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Last attire forum brings civility, dialogue

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The last of four public forums held on proposed changes to Bedford County school dress code regulations featured two elements which had sometimes been in short supply at the previous forums: civility, and dialogue.

Tuesday night's forum, held at Harris Middle School, was the last scheduled forum before Bedford County Board of Education is scheduled to vote on school attire later this month.

The forum held in November at Liberty School featured a 50/50 split between supporters and opponents of what was then being called Standardized School Attire (SSA). But the forums at Cascade School in December and Community School in January were dominated by opponents, and in some cases by angry accusations leveled against the school board for even proposing SSA. Critics accused the forums of being a pretense and claimed the board had already made up its mind on adopting SSA. The Times-Gazette web site's blog and story comments became a forum for additional heated debate on the issue.

School board member Diane Neeley said Tuesday night that she believes her constituents are split 50/50 on the issue. She said the universally-negative comments at two of the forums resulted partly from a hostile attitude created by SSA opponents which intimidated some SSA supporters from speaking. She said the people who attended the forums, some of whom attended more than one, represent only 3 percent of the 7,500 school children in Bedford County.

"Maybe the ones who are for it are not speaking as loudly," said Neeley. However, she said she personally thought the first SSA draft went too far in its approach.

Then, school board members held their annual planning retreat in January, devoting much of it to a revision of the original SSA plan, which had been modeled closely on Metro Nashville's policy. School board members said all along that the original plan was just a starting point for discussion. Board Chairman Barry Cooper said Tuesday night that the use of Nashville's plan as a starting point was "to save time and taxpayer money" by using something which had already been researched and discussed.

The revised plan, released earlier this month, loosens some aspects of SSA -- applying it only to grades 6 and up, for example, and allowing plain, unadorned blue jeans. But it still prohibits T-shirts in favor of solid-colored, collared shirts.

Some who spoke Tuesday night still oppose the plan, saying it still infringes too much on student freedoms. But others praised the revision, and two speakers near the end of the meeting even said the school board should not have loosened the document and said that the original proposal would be easier to enforce and more appropriate.

At the first three forums, school board members made little response to public comments, answering direct questions only when forced. But at Tuesday night's forum, Cooper announced that school board members, now that they had a sense of the public's mood, would be much more forthcoming in responding to the discussion, and that was indeed the case.

"This is the one we re-worked," said Cooper, "and we need to be willing to talk about it." But he also challenged participants to take a positive approach.

"Tell us something tangible that we can look at rather than just chew us out," he said. Board members stressed that the policy is still not set in stone and may be revised further based on public input before the final vote.

As at previous forums, several of the speakers were high school students.

The three previous forums were held on the same night as regular school board meetings and had a strict 45-minute time limit. Tuesday's forum was not. Cooper originally announced that it would last an hour and 15 minutes; in fact, it lasted two hours and 20 minutes.

In general, participants in Tuesday's forum took Cooper's advice -- proponents and opponents alike generally kept to the issues at hand rather than making personal attacks or questioning each other's motives or intentions.

Because of the length of the forum, it is impossible to include all of the comments and topics in this space, but here are some topics of interest, especially those where the discussion differed from or expanded upon what was said at previous forums.

Religion

Several critics of SSA have complained of inequitable treatment of religions, saying the code would make exceptions for Muslim women to wear headdresses but prohibiting Christian T-shirts.

Mary Jones raised the issue at Tuesday's forum.

School board member, and Assembly of God minister, Glenn Forsee said that the burden of proof for any religious exemption to the dress code would fall on the applicant. Anyone, Christian, Muslim or some other religion, would have to show that their holy scriptures or writings clearly require or prohibit a certain style of dress in order to get permission to violate the dress code. No exceptions would be made for something that is simply a cultural preference. All religions would be held to this same standard, said Forsee.

"I think I want people to judge my Christianity by how I act," said Cooper, "and not by what I wear on my shirt."

Later, another forum participant pursued the question of why religious T-shirts would not be allowed, saying such expressions of faith should be encouraged. Forsee noted that "religious" T-shirts, as required by various federal rules and regulations, would apply to any religion. If the school system allowed a Christian teen to wear a T-shirt promoting his religion, the same privilege would have to be allowed to a Satanist or Wiccan student.

Stripes and solids

The rules require solid-colored shirts and pants, which continues to be a bone of contention for opponents. Debra Smith, mother of children at Cascade School, said that she's an active and supportive parent but that the proposed dress code would keep her children from wearing anything now in their closet. She pointed out school board member Leonard Singleton, who was wearing a striped shirt.

County commissioner and former principal Jimmy Woodson, who attends Forsee's church, pointed to his own blue checked shirt.

"I could go to Brother Forsee's church like this," he said. "I sure wish I could go to school like this."

Another speaker later in the meeting noted that some people wear stripes to flatter their body shape -- vertical stripes to slim, for example.

School board member Mary Jo Johnson said limiting the shirts to solid colors makes it easier to determine at a glance whether students are in compliance. Cooper said the prohibition of advertising messages, prints and stripes was geared towards the goal of ensuring that well-off students are dressed similarly to lesser students. Striped or print shirts, said Cooper, are more likely to indicate whether a piece of clothing is a name brand or a bargain brand.

The policy allows white or blue shirts to be worn at any school, while each school would be allowed to choose up to three additional colors (presumably including the school colors). Cascade High School student Jolene Peters said this gives an unfair advantage to Central High School, since one of its school colors (blue) is already one of the standard colors.

School board member Amy Martin acknowledged Peters' point and said it should be taken into consideration.

Special needs

Two speakers discussed the impact of the dress code on special needs students. Exceptions to the code could be made for such students -- for example, autistic students are averse to touch and, according to speakers Tuesday night, are made uncomfortable by collars or closely-fitting clothing.

But one mother said those exceptions to the code will only serve to even further set her son apart and single him out for possible teasing and harrassment.

"You're ... making him more conscious of his disability," she said.

Judgment calls

Charleen Forsythe asked about the requirement in the code that pants and skirts be worn "at the waist."

"Men don't wear their pants around the waist," said Forsythe. "Nor do most women."

The intent of that rule, and the rule that shirts (or, in some cases, undershirts) be tucked in, is to prevent low-riding pants that reveal the wearer's underwear, buttocks, or both.

Kayla Feldhaus, a Central High School student who supports the dress code, said that the problem of low-riding pants is so bad that it affects the flow of traffic through the school's hallways by keeping some students from walking quickly.

But the use of the term "waist" means it will be subject to judgement calls by administrators.

Another speaker asked about the rule that pants not be so long that the wearer walks on them. She said her daughter's legs often come just to the end of her pants legs, and she sometimes barely steps on them with her heel. Board members said such incidental wear is not what the rule is intended to prevent; it's aimed at students whose pants are several inches too long.

School board members said common sense will have to be used by school administrators in the enforcement of several such issues.

Later, Art Legare, who supported the original SSA plan, said the loosened plan now being forth by the school board is "unenforceable" because it includes too many such judgement calls.

Sharon Cochran, like Legare, believes the current proposal is too permissive. She said allowing jeans now requires judgment calls about what jeans are appropriate or not. She urged the school board to pass a much stricter SSA policy, even in the face of opposition, and said parents will be won over once they see the program in action.

"The backlash will be short-lived," said Cochran.

Evidence

Legare also responded to critics who say the benefits of SSA in promoting a calmer and more productive school atmosphere are unproven. He pointed out that SSA is a relatively new development and said it takes 6-10 years to be able to truly and accurately study its true impact. He said that the Long Beach, Calif., school system is only now getting enough data to be able to accurately judge the impact of SSA, and he said preliminary evidence there is positive.

Martin, meanwhile, recalled the teacher who approached school board members last fall during their site visit to Glencliff Middle School in Nashville. He said he'd originally been opposed to SSA but had been amazed by what he perceived as the difference in the school's atmosphere since it had been put into place.

The school board's next scheduled meeting is 7 p.m. Feb. 21, and the board hopes to vote on a student dress code at that time.