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Students say school dress codes wear thin

Published September 06. 2018 12:31PM

Get out the rulers! The cat-and-mouse game of dress code violations has begun again in earnest with the start of the new school year.

More schools are implementing restrictions on what students can wear, and these are spelled out in policies aimed at not only students but also at parents as administrators try to enlist their help in enforcement efforts.

Several school administrators to whom I spoke during August sigh that some students seem eager to test the boundaries of the policies, and the administration must play the “bad cop” role of enforcer. How short is too short when it comes to dresses, for example? Well, that’s where the rulers presumably come in.

The most difficult times, they said, are at the beginning and at the end of the school year.

Some students wonder why there must be dress codes in the first place. They plead for the need to express themselves as individuals not as conformists and say that they do this through how they dress and accessorize themselves.

My research shows that the movement toward stricter dress codes came nearly 20 years ago after Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold opened fire at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, killing 12 students and one teacher before turning their guns on themselves.

After this shocking event, the public sought answers and scrutinized the behavior of the two, including the clothing they wore. Both frequently came to school in trench coats with deep pockets that could conceal contraband, including weapons.

It was after Columbine that schools started to examine the need for dress code restrictions to prevent another Columbine from happening. But trying to get a handle on violence was just one of the reasons schools turned to stricter dress codes.

Another major reason is the belief that it would help maintain discipline and limit distractions.

The implementation of stricter dress code restrictions brought protests from students, their parents and, in some cases, from First Amendment rights advocates such as the American Civil Liberties Union.

Dress codes in schools began in earnest in the 1950s and ’60s when schools were on a mission to curb juvenile delinquency. Administrators and boards of education thought that regulating the type of clothing worn would serve a useful purpose in setting boundaries for students.

Not surprisingly, most high school students view dress codes as “stupid” and “overly confining.” Most educators and parents welcome them as a significant help in setting the tone for the educational experience. Several students complained that their schools champion and encourage students to speak up and express themselves, but when they do so through the clothing they choose to wear, a double-standard comes into play.

Most schools lay out in their policies why they have a dress code. Jim Thorpe’s, for example, says, “Student dress should always be in good taste and appropriate for the business of learning.”

Palmerton’s policy says, “The board recognizes that each student’s mode of dress and grooming is a manifestation of personal style and individual preference. However, the board further recognizes its paramount obligation to provide for the health, safety and welfare of the students who attend its schools.”

I’m providing an example of some of the provisions of dress codes in area schools:

Tamaqua: Denim pants, jeans, capri pants and shorts may not be worn; pants may not be of the cargo or carpenter style with pockets below the hips; shirts should not be see-through, so that any type of garment or accessory worn underneath will be visible.

Jim Thorpe: New facial piercings during the school year are discouraged since the healing process takes many weeks, and there is a high risk of infection. Facial piercings other than the nose stud must be removed while in school.

Pleasant Valley: Prohibited: Clothing or accessories deemed contrary to the mission of the school or that advertise the use of alcohol, tobacco, or drugs or which are offensive, obscene, immoral, sexually suggestive or contain statements derogatory toward any race, ethnicity, gender or religion or that advocate violence or gang-related activity; no ripped or tattered clothing.

Northern Lehigh: No spaghetti straps; sunglasses and/or contact lenses that significantly alter the appearance of the eyes;

Palmerton: “Showing cleavage (defined as the separation between a woman’s breasts per the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language) is prohibited.”

Around the nation, there are some interesting prohibitions: In a rural Ohio district, for example, no babushkas are allowed; at Buchanan High School in California, boys can’t wear earrings.

Some schools even address the latest trends. For example, one local school’s policy indicates that if a fidget tool is distracting to the student, other students or the teacher, the teacher has the right to ask the student to put the fidget tool away or to confiscate the item.

By Bruce Frassinelli |

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