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As School Board Votes on Uniform Policy, a Reality Check From the Trenches

| January 16, 2012

The clothes don't make the mark.

On Tuesday, the Flagler County School Board is scheduled to take an up-or-down vote on whether to institute a uniform policy in all traditional public schools beginning next school-year. The board is likely to adopt the policy, with at least three board members favoring the move. Earlier this month Jo Ann Nahirny, a teacher at Matanzas High School, sent the following letter to every school board member.

By Jo Ann C. Nahirny

On Friday, September 16, 2011, at about 9 a.m., I sat at my desk in Room 5239 at Matanzas High School,  grading essays,  while  my 21 English 3 Honors students  worked assiduously on their   vocabulary quizzes.  A sudden, loud thud against the back wall of the classroom interrupted everyone’s concentration, followed by a tumultuous commotion in the adjacent room. I ran out the door to determine the cause of the ruckus, only to discover a violent brawl next door.

Jo Ann Nahirni (© FlaglerLive)

Jo Ann Nahirny (© FlaglerLive)

Looking through the window of the closed door momentarily, I observed a chair hit the wall, the hand  of one of the combatants come in contact with the teacher’s face, and chaos ensue as  other students clambered out the door in fear, to get out of harm’s way. Too terrified to intervene, I scrambled back to my room, pushed the “emergency” button and furiously dialed the front desk while simultaneously barking orders to my own students to run and get help from other teachers down the hall.

Thanks in large part to male colleagues who arrived on the scene within seconds, order was restored and the two fighters were separated before any administrator or SRD even arrived on the scene. When the dust settled and punishments meted out (minimal six-day suspensions for each boy), we learned the fight had started with innocent joking that had somehow escalated to insults, and ultimately, blows.

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Several days earlier, another fight had occurred at Matanzas, this one so serious that it resulted in injuries to an SRD and an MHS school security guard, and even garnered publicity on television newscasts from Jacksonville to Daytona. The instigator was arrested and is awaiting trial. The cause of this altercation?  A young man grew angry when he observed another male talking to “his girl” so he hit him—then fought back when adults tried to prevent him from inflicting further injury on his victim.

These are not the only fights that have happened at Matanzas, and doubtless there will be more. But at no time have I ever heard of a fight at any school I have ever worked at (in the past 14 years) that was caused by the clothing someone was or was not wearing. The vast majority of school brawls occur because of relationship or dating issues or “he said-she said” nonsense. Ask the Dean of Students at any high school or middle school in this area and they will tell you the same thing.  Contrary to the popular saying, clothes don’t make the man (or the woman, or the student, for that matter), and nobody fights over what others wear, either.

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So why is the Flagler County School Board expending so much time and energy on “the uniform issue” claiming it will reduce school violence? If you really wanted to do that, I invite you to instead crack down on the truly offensive things kids wear that cause problems — like blatantly racist Confederate shirts and belt buckles, and rosary beads whose colors are obvious gang symbol proclamations, masquerading as devotional  prayer beads.  Lest you actually believe these students are so piously exercising their freedom of religion, they most definitely are not. My father spent 33 years as a highly decorated police officer in the inner-city of Newark, N.J.  Though now retired, he still remains active in law enforcement activities and seminars. He and other enforcement officers nationwide have  nearly all recognized the statement of gang membership so clearly proclaimed by innocent-enough looking rosaries disguised as jewelry around the necks of non-Catholic kids who couldn’t recite the Hail Mary prayer  if you asked them—much to the dismay of  practicing Catholics like me, who use rosary beads for their intended purpose every morning , as I do,  praying during my 42-mile commute to Matanzas High School.

While dressing up kids alike may make them look nicer, appearances are truly deceptive. Hitler’s Youth wore crisp uniforms, as do all the school children currently being indoctrinated to assume their roles in  Castro’s communist party in  Cuba,  even until today. Nazis wore glistening uniforms and sported buzz cuts. Very respectable looking young men they were indeed –until you delve below the surface and recognize the deeds performed by those who sported such attire. But didn’t they look nice, though?

Why is the School Board concerned so much about appearance? (As an educator, substance is what matters to me most!)  You can dress anyone up in a uniform, but it isn’t going to change anything.  No child or teen is going to magically say, “Wow, let me start studying now since I wear a uniform.”

My son wore sweat pants and tee shirts to Matanzas High School every day—and graduated fifth in his class  of 350 in 2011,  having earned an Associate’s degree at age 16, with scholarship offers from multiple universities.  The colleges courting him didn’t care what he wore.  And none of his classmates ever taunted him about his choice of clothing, either, just as what his peers wore didn’t matter to him in the least, either.  At Stetson these days he attends class in the same athletic wear he preferred in high school,  yet maintains a  perfect 4.0 GPA. His best friend, meanwhile, who prefers a much more formal look is struggling to keep a 2.0 average. My daughter, now 21, wore ripped jeans to Matanzas  (that were much too raggedy for my personal taste) but since she studied and graduated from high school in the top 10% of her class, her choice of clothes took a back seat. I never made it an issue.  I’m glad I didn’t, for  I’m so proud  now when I see her dressed so professionally in business suits when she goes to her internship assignments at elementary schools throughout  Volusia  (she’s an elementary education major). She still wears ripped jeans to class occasionally, but earns A’s and B’s regardless!  As a mother and teacher, I “picked my battles” and I’m asking you to do the same.

Some of the very best-dressed students in my classes also happen to be the worst academic performers, and some of the students who come to class in bleach-stained shirts and visibly worn clothing are earning SAT scores higher than 85% of students nationwide. My lowest achieving student has obviously spent more on clothes, manicures, pedicures and salon treatments  in one semester  than I’ve spent in my 50 years of life. But it hasn’t helped her become a better reader or pass the FCAT, nor has a nice wardrobe improved her mediocre grades! Some of my high achievers come in tee shirts, jeans, sweat pants and whatever they happen to pull on when they have to roll out of bed at an ungodly hour to run out to get to a school bus stop before the sun even rises –but they are the ones who will be garnering multiple scholarship offers within the next year or so.

As a teacher, I’m already burdened with so much responsibility. As it is, before I can even begin to teach the day’s lesson, I have to check every period to be sure nobody has arrived late, nobody has come in without an I.D. card around their neck, no one’s texting, no one’s sleeping, etc. I already monitor for clothing that “exposes” too much.  Writing referrals isn’t my favorite thing to do, because I’m supposed to be TEACHING. The more time I have to waste on enforcement of school policies (and there are dozens already!), the less time I have to help students learn the skills they need to succeed in college and the world of work. If you’re asking me to spend even two  short minutes each period every day checking to see if kids are wearing a uniform, that’s 360 minutes per year, or six hours less per period I will spend teaching each year.

Is wasting that much time really worth it? Hitler obviously thought so, and Castro still does. Do you?

Very truly yours,

Jo Ann C. Nahirny

Jo Ann C. Nahirny, a 1985 graduate of Columbia University and a National Board Certified Teacher, teaches English at Matanzas High School in Palm Coast. Reach her by email here. Read her previous column for FlaglerLive here.

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41 Responses for “As School Board Votes on Uniform Policy, a Reality Check From the Trenches”

  1. HayThere says:

    I like the idea of uniforms. It will save time and help teachers focus on their jobs since less time will be devoted to deciding what is appropriate. The rules will be consistent and then all the teaches can be on the same page. For all those kids and adults that say uniforms take away a student’s ability to express their individuality, think about this. Individuality should not be expressed by what you wear. That is SUPERFICIAL and SHALLOW. Let your mind and your heart express who you are. Show us who you are by the good you do in the world not by your style choices. Express who you are by the books that you read, the poetry you love, the music that moves your soul, or the charities you devote your time and talent too. Who and what you love is more important than what you wear! Show us who you are by being the best you can be. You are not your clothes, hair, make-up, or shoes. If all you have are those things then you will probably find life empty and meaningless. If you you don’t care about them, then putting on a uniform won’t change who you are or make you any less of who you are. It is just one less unimportant decision you will have to make each day. Uniforms might actually force kids to really try and get to know someone first because they can’t make judgments based on what clothing someone may wear. The worst part about uniforms is having enough of them around so that you don’t have to do laundry every other day. I wore uniforms for years and they inspire community and unity in a school. I felt like I was a part of something important where learning was a priority, not what jeans I had on. It was not about conforming. Conforming is being forced to share beliefs and values. No one is suggesting we do that. Bottom line…Uniforms are not bad and no one can say that uniforms distract from learning. I can say with all certainty that if a a pretty girl gets up to recite her favorite poem in English class my teenage boy, who attends Matanzas, will have a much easier time focusing on her mind and the prose that touches her heart if he’s not staring at her cleavage or her short skirt. Just sayin..


  2. palmcoaster says:

    @Matanzas speaks.You got that right with, “who was the idiot”…School Board Fischer the egomaniac along with Dickinson that manage to drag Conklin along for the vote. That man Fischer, the same one associated to the cover up for his wife hit and run, that killed our good resident Ms.Francois Pequeur and she goes free and unpunished so far. So what can you expect for fairness and justice? No matter what these dudes say or do, you stay the course and press on and you will win. Also very important remember whom to vote for when next Board elections come around.


  3. Anonymous says:

    Confederate flag, a “blatantly racist” symbol? Only if you choose to be willfully ignorant of history.

    -All thirteen original states which seceded from England in 1776, and which formed the United States of America, from Maine (a part of Massachusetts at that time) to Georgia, owned slaves. Was the First American Revolution fought over slavery? If not, then neither was the Second American Revolution fought over slavery when the Southern states withdrew from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America.

    -Is the Fourth of July a racist holiday because all thirteen original colonies had slaves? If not, then neither are Confederate holidays.

    -Is the U.S. flag a racist flag because all thirteen original states had slaves? If not, then neither is the Confederate battle flag a racist flag. Or, do you advocate taking down the U.S. flag as well? If you do, then we need to take down nearly every national flag in the world, starting with the flag of Nigeria in Africa.

    -Slaves on both sides: during the War Between the States, many in the North also had slaves, but refused to free their slaves until after the war. People in Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, West Virginia, and even Washington, D.C., owned slaves; these states never seceded and were under the control of the United States throughout the course of the entire war. However, they were not required to free their slaves by the U.S. government.

    -The U.S. Congress in 1862 even refused to pass a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery, when the only Senators and Representatives in Congress were from the North (all Southerners had left Congress to form their own nation). How could the North be fighting the war to free Southern slaves, when they would not free their own, such as Ulysses S. Grant’s personal slave, or Abraham Lincoln’s father-in-law’s slaves? Lincoln and the U.S. Congress even offered to pass a constitutional amendment for the South, guaranteeing permanent slavery forever in the slave states, if only the Southern states would return to the Union. The South refused the offer.

    -Northern slaves were even exempt from Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Furthermore, captured Southern slaves on the Mississippi River were forced to work on the plantations as slaves for the United States Army, growing cotton for Northern factories, rather than being set free. Also during the war, just as many Union soldiers owned slaves as Confederate soldiers. Is the U.S. flag a symbol of slavery because the North owned slaves during the war? If not, then neither is the Confederate battle flag a symbol of slavery. How could the war have been fought over slavery when both sides had slaves?

    -The War Between the States (this is what the U.S. Congress declared it to be, it wasn’t a civil war) was fought over local self-government by the South, versus centralist government by the North; the centralist government won and the local self-government lost. The Confederate battle flag is a symbol of the right of local people and the states to govern themselves and is flown in memory and honor of Confederate veterans who gave their lives for less government, less taxes, and Southern independence.

    Just trying to correct what I find to be a glaring misnomer in the article. According to your own comment policy, comments which correct factual errors and provoke debate are the types of comments that you prefer. Censoring my thoughtful and informative comment again without cause or explanation would be a tacit admission that I am right. Truth does not fear inquiry.


  4. Anonymouss says:

    The south refused to give up slavery, it was a huge part of the war. The Southern Baptist Church did not apologize for slavery and its stance on it until the 90′s. That’s why it has come to represent a blatantly racist, ignorant, and intolerant symbol. Your example of the early colonies owning slaves is moot considering most of them worked to abolish it almost right away, the southern states did not.


    • Anonymous says:

      Did you not read the article? It’s comical how PC types plug their ears like children when faced with the facts.


  5. w.ryan says:

    What did he read at all? Trying to incite a dialog about flags? We’re a Democracy! Fly your flag. Everyone don’t have to like it. Don’t explain.


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