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OPINION: Notes from the school attire conundrum

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Because I've been the primary reporter covering the debate over standardized school attire (SSA) over the past year or so, I've tried not to make any bold pronouncements one way or the other in this opinion forum. But, as we approach the school board's final decision on the matter, I have a few thoughts to offer.

I'm still not going to come out one way or the other about whether SSA (although the school board has now backed away from that name) is a good idea. My thoughts relate more to the process, and to some of the directions the debate has taken, at the public forums and on the T-G's own story comments and blog comments.

20/20 hindsight

The Board of Education deserves a lot of credit for having public forums and trying to get input on the approval process -- something they weren't required to do, and something that was often ignored or discounted by opponents.

But I got to thinking the other night about something that was said last May, when I covered a site visit by the board to Cleveland (Tenn.) High School, which has had SSA in place for more than a decade now. In that school system, while the school board endorsed SSA, the specifics of it are decided and implemented on a school-by-school basis.

As Cleveland's principal Chuck Rockholt explained it to us, the specific rules for his school are reviewed periodically by a school attire committee composed of three parents, three students and three teachers. Rockholt, like some of the speakers at last week's forum, sees nothing objectionable about striped or plaid shirts, and wishes they could be allowed. But he has a policy of standing behind whatever the advisory committee recommends, even though he could, as principal, overrule them. The advisory committee, as of last spring, remained dead-set in favor of only solid colors. (They have no restrictions on what colors can be worn, as long as they're solid colors.)

That got me to thinking. Stripes and solids aside, would the public response to SSA have been any different if the draft policy had been drawn up, not by the school board or staff, but by a study committee of parents, students and teachers? Someone would have had to work with the committee to ensure that the proposed policy met legal requirements and was worded in the correct legal fashion. The final decision to adopt the policy (or to amend it) would still have been the school board's -- that's what we elected them for, to set policy. But perhaps the public might have reacted differently if it were known that the policy originated from a grass-roots committee composed of people who have to deal with students and their clothing on a daily basis.

Hindsight, of course, is always 20/20. But if SSA is voted down this year, and if the school board wants to try again in a year or two, perhaps a study committee would be the way to go. Or perhaps, as in Cleveland's case, such a committee could be set up to review and propose changes to the dress code policy from year to year.

Learning is job one

A standard tactic taken by SSA opponents is to complain that the school board should be concerned with what students are learning instead of with what they wear.

Well, that's sort of the point, isn't it? The pro-SSA people say that that the issue is about what the students are learning and claim -- rightly or wrongly -- that SSA will create a calmer, more focused school environment in which that learning can take place.

Opponents dispute the claimed benefits of SSA and say they haven't been backed up by research. Both sides have gone around and around for weeks on this argument, and I don't think anyone on either side has been swayed. But give the SSA proponents some credit: whether you agree with their conclusions or not, they, too, are trying to improve the learning process.

In fact, School Board Chairman Barry Cooper, speaking at last week's forum, noted that the school board spends its time setting policies for many other aspects of the learning process, ranging from curriculum to new facilities to teacher retention. Some of the people who are actively fighting SSA have never attended a school board meeting or called their school board member to discuss any of those other issues. By saying that, Cooper implied that it's the SSA opponents, not the supporters, who are obsessed with clothing to the exclusion of legitimate educational concerns.

Rights and responsibilities

A few SSA opponents have complained that it's somehow a form of oppression for the government to ever tell their children what to wear. That's a huge overstatement.

The question is not "does the school system ever have the right to tell our children what to wear?" Of course it does. Just as your basketball coach can require you to wear a team uniform, and just as your boss can require you to wear steel-toed boots or a suit and tie, the school system can require certain clothing -- if there is a demonstrably valid purpose for doing so. Almost no one would say that it's OK for students to wear, for example, a bikini to class, or a T-shirt with the "F" word on it. So the school system clearly has the right to determine what is appropriate student clothing, and students and parents must comply. What is up for debate is, are these particular rules beneficial? How far is too far, and how far is not far enough? Are the claimed benefits of SSA real or just hype?

Many SSA opponents understand this distinction; their argument is that the proposed rules go too far. But the speakers who get over-emotional and say that the school system has "no right to tell my children how to dress" are missing the point.

Common sense

The term "common sense" has come up a lot in the SSA debate, with both supporters and opponents saying that it must play a part in enforcement of any dress code. That's all well and good -- but "common sense" implies judgment calls, and that leaves the door open for human error. If you have to use common sense to determine whether a pants leg is just a little too long or unacceptably too long, there's a chance that an administrator (without realizing it, or intending to) will treat the honor student from the prominent family differently from the lower-income student with an attitude.

One of the supposed benefits of SSA was to eliminate such judgment calls -- but doing so requires a short and relatively strict list of what can be worn. Loosening SSA, as the school board has done in response to criticism, re-introduces judgment calls to the equation, which complicates the enforcement process and which leaves the door open for favoritism.

No matter what kind of dress code you have, whether it's SSA or just a normal school dress code, that's the thorny problem you face. If the policy is more specific, it's more restrictive and sometimes leads to prohibiting things that aren't really hurting anyone. If the policy is less specific, the human element is introduced -- and in today's lawsuit-happy society, where parents are less likely to stand behind teachers and administrators on disciplinary issues, the human element can be costly.


School officials have said repeatedly that a county-wide attire policy is necessary because of student mobility and have claimed that 25 percent of the student population changes schools in a given year. That figure surprises me.

I'm assuming that the 25 percent figure does not include the normal advancement of students from primary to intermediate to middle to high school. Changing school due to advancement is irrelevant to the issue of standardization, since the dress code for an elementary school isn't necessarily expected to be the same as the dress code for a middle school, which isn't the same as a high school.

But if they're saying that one-quarter of the student population moves from, for example, one high school to another within the course of a year, that's remarkable.

Even if that figure is accurate, does that necessarily mean that all three high schools have to have exactly the same cookie-cutter policy? If you buy a new house, and as a result must move your kids from High School A to High School B, that's your decision -- and so, isn't it your responsibility to learn about and make the necessary changes to comply with the policies at your new school?

Life goes on

Whatever happens with SSA, up or down, it won't be the end of the world. It might be a good idea, it might be a bad idea, but it's not going to turn our students into mindless zombies or drive parents to bankruptcy. It certainly hasn't at Cleveland High School, and they've had SSA for 10 years now. Teenagers are pretty creative, and they find ways to express themselves even within the restrictions you put on them. There's a lot of room for customization even within a strict SSA guideline.

John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government and other topics. His home page is lakeneuron.com.

John I. Carney
Loose Talk / Charge Complete
John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette.