— It took only an hour for parents in Omaha, Neb., to get in touch with the American Civil Liberties Union. Their children — 23 of them — had been suspended from school for wearing the wrong clothes.
The teenagers, all students at Millard South High School, were ordered to stay home from one to three days in late August for wearing T-shirts that memorialized Julius Robinson, 18, a Millard South football player who was shot to death in June. The shirts were being sold to help raise money so Robinson’s family could buy a headstone for his grave.
Robinson was “just a really good guy,” said Dan Kuhr, a friend who designed the shirts. “He didn’t cause a lot of trouble.”
But to officials of the Millard Public Schools, the words “Julius RIP” on the shirts were disruptive. After consulting with Omaha police, they also said the shirts could be considered gang-related.
‘All I'm trying to do is ... respect my friend’
“I’m pretty upset — all I’m trying to do is, like, respect my friend,” said Patzy Van Beek, a junior at the school. “It’s not fair. People can wear ‘rest in peace, Grandma,’ but when it come to Julius, now all of a sudden we can’t have that at our school. I feel like no one cares.”
After the parents of several of the suspended students got in contact with the ACLU, the organization referred the case to its board of directors for possible legal action and sent a letter to the district, saying: “Going back to school shouldn’t mean sacrificing free speech rights at the schoolhouse door.”
That notion is at the heart of similar disputes across the country. As dress codes and mandatory school uniform policies become more commonplace, students and parents are ending up in courtrooms and jailhouses in their determination to fight back:
School officials called police when Castillo got into a heated argument with the school’s safety officer about the uniform policy. When officers arrived, they told her she would be arrested if she did not leave. According to police, Castillo responded, “Arrest me.” Her son was arrested when he tried to intervene.
Dozens of parents, saying school officials had gone overboard in this and other incidents, showed up at at a meeting of the School Committee last week to call for a change in the dress code.
She said she refused to be handcuffed “because I didn’t commit any crime.”
Taking on gangs by taking on gang symbolism
Dress codes are supposed to reduce violence and bullying by taking style differences out of the equation, according to the National Association of Elementary School Principals. Since the Clinton administration, the Education Department has encouraged schools to go further by adopting uniforms, saying they promote safety and discipline.
Jane E. Workman and Beth Winfrey-Freeburg of Southern Illinois University found that gang-related headwear was the No. 1 target of dress codes and uniform requirements, cited in 89 percent of the more than 80 school policies they reviewed in 2006. Jackets were second, cited in 64 percent of policies, because they can bear gang-related symbols and hide weapons.
Because gangs can be highly creative in adopting signs and colors, some dress codes are minutely detailed, irritating some parents who have to pore over them to ensure their kids aren’t wearing a prohibited color or logo.
“I don’t get child support, and I already did my back-to-school shopping,” complained Debbie Pua, the single mother of a student at Salinas High School in Salinas, Calif., after officials added new restrictions late last month. The new dress code prohibits anything red or dark blue — including shoelaces — and anything bearing numbers, lettering or sports symbols.
The rules might appear arbitrary, but outsiders often don’t grasp what a seemingly innocuous item might mean, Principal Michael Romero said. Take a popular sports belt with a buckle in the shape of the number 14: Police said “14” stands for the 14th letter in the alphabet, “N,” signifying Norteños or Nuestra Familia, a gang that began in Folsom State Prison in 1968.
Like a lot of students, Grace Davis, a sophomore at Salinas, said the new rules only compounded the problem.
“It doesn’t fix the disease. It just covers the symptoms,” she said. “I think we’re still going to have the same gang problem. We’re just going to be angry at the administration, and I don’t think that’s the way to go.”
Battling the Three B’s
In recent years, a phenomenon known as sexually provocative displays has intruded into the debate over school dress codes.
“Sexualizing childhood is diverting students from the kind of learning we want them to do,” Diane E. Levin, a professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston, said in a report on “Lolita in the Classroom” in NEA Today, the journal of the National Education Association.
In the San Diego area, the Sweetwater Union High School District has banned any clothing that reveals the so-called three B’s: breasts, bellies or bottoms.
“That’s how some of their role models — the singers and the actresses — tend to dress, and that’s why we have a bigger problem with the young ladies,” said Arturo Montano, the district’s supervisor of student welfare and attendance.
Brittany Meredith, 16, a student at Canyon Crest Academy in San Diego, said the dress code at her school, part of the San Dieguito Union School District, was a good idea. The district bans all head coverings, halter tops and bare midriffs.
Outside school, Brittany said, she often sees classmates in “really tiny shorts and stilettos.”
“I’m like, ‘O-kaaaay ...,’” she said, describing her reaction to the scanty outfits.
Administrators see roadblock
Many parents endorse such rules, including Craig Minor of Lamar, Texas, father of a student at Lamar High School, which requires students to wear “a blue or white Lamar polo shirt and only khaki uniform pants and skirts” without decorative stitching or outside patch pockets.
That makes it a lot easier to get kids out the door in the morning, Minor said, because “it diffuses a lot of other issues of different types of clothing.”
But other parents find the restrictions stifling and counterproductive.
For Jacquelyn Totura, whose daughter attends a middle-school student in Starke, Fla., it’s a free-speech issue. She objected to the Bradford County School District’s decision this year to require students to wear solid-color polo or collared shirts and black, navy or khaki pants.
“It takes away her right to be an individual and her right to choose in the morning what she wants to wear and what she’s comfortable in,” Totura said.
School administrators and teachers who support dress codes say that in addition to making gang confrontations less likely, they help create an atmosphere conducive to learning.
Bradford County Superintendent Harry Hatcher said the policy allowed teachers and administrators “to focus on student achievement as opposed to issues that take away from that.”
To Teneal Gardner, a teacher at McCulloch Middle School in Marion, Ind., school uniforms help educators “prepare the kids to be successful in school.”
“When they're dressed nicer, they feel better and work hard,” Teneal said, commenting after parents sought an injunction against a new uniform policy at the school.
‘You’re punishing the children’
Usually when students and parents object, policies are explained and differences are hashed out at school board meetings. But sometimes, disputes end up in court.
School dress policies must meet a test the Supreme Court set in a landmark 1969 ruling, which established the right to free expression in school as long as it does not cause a “material or substantial disruption” of the education process. Administrators’ determination of what is disruptive often leads to protests from both sides of the political spectrum.
The Liberty Legal Institute, a conservative policy organization, is considering suing the Dallas Independent School District after administrators at Seagoville High School ordered a Catholic student last month to remove or conceal her rosary.
And in Gonzales, Texas, near San Antonio, parents are considering legal action over a new policy that requires students who come to school dressed inappropriately to either go home or put on a school-provided prison-style jumpsuit — one actually made by Texas inmates. Police had to restore order at a recent school board meeting where parents heatedly complained about the new policy.
“You’re punishing the children,” Gracie Mercer, mother of a Gonzales student, told board members. “You guys aren’t concerned about their education.”
Officials rebuffed the critics and said the policy would stay in place.
“We’re a conservative community,” Deputy Superintendent Larry Wehde said. “We’re just trying to make our students more reflective of that.”
Mixed record in court
In a legal analysis of dress code policies, the First Amendment Center in Nashville, Tenn., said courts remained divided over how much weight to give schools’ assessments of what constitutes “material or substantial disruption.”
Judges usually side with administrators if a student’s clothing sends a violent or discriminatory message, or if it advocates drug use. But if it has a clear political message, the decision usually goes the other way.
“The courts have divided over how to resolve dress code disputes and reached different results,” the report found. “The legal landscape remains muddled over dress codes and uniforms.”
But sometimes, school officials will admit they’ve gone too far. That’s what happened in Fresno, Calif., last month when administrators at Dos Palos High School apologized to Jake Shelly, a sophomore whom they forced to change into a shirt bearing the words “Dress Code Violator.”
Jake’s proscribed apparel? A T-shirt sporting the American flag. The Dos Palos-Oro Loma Joint Unified School District’s dress code prohibits “shirts or blouses that promote specific races, cultures or ethnicities.”
After the American Legion protested, Superintendent Brian Walker agreed that the policy had been poorly applied. The ensuing uproar, he said, was a learning experience for everyone involved.