In a Victory for Students, Divided School Board Relaxes High School Dress Code Substantially
FlaglerLive | May 19, 2015
The Flagler County School Board Tuesday evening substantially relaxed its dress code for high school students.
Starting next fall, students will be allowed to wear so-called “spirit” shirts such as school-logo t-shirts, team jerseys or school or district-club shirts every day of the week, rather than just on designated “spirit” days or on Fridays. In addition to that, high school students will no longer have to abide by the requirement that they wear only solid-colored collared shirts, when they’re not wearing the other kinds of allowed t-shirts. Starting this fall, they’ll also be allowed to wear plaid or striped shirts—in essence, any sort of collared shirt that looks presentable, as long as it doesn’t sport images or wild themes.
The policy does not change for middle and elementary schools, where the allowance for spirit-day shirts remains, but only on Fridays.
The board voted 3-2 to adopt the new policy after a discussion that once again divided the board and tested tempers, particularly those of board member Sue Dickinson (against the change) and board chair Colleen Conklin (for the change). But the vote also showed the significance of the last election’s only change on the board: Janet McDonald proved to be the swing vote in favor of the more relaxed policy. The man she’d replaced, John Fischer, had been a staunch supporter of a strict dress code—he had favored uniforms—and in March had urged the board to go stricter, not looser.
“What I heard from one of the deans was that we took a non-issue and made it the second-most reportable misbehavior,” McDonald said, recalling the six days she spent at the district’s two high school, observing and speaking with faculty. “I think that’s atrocious. We have our professionals spending hours monitoring clothing. That’s not why they’re there.”
Tuesday’s vote was a pronounced victory for students, and especially for two students in particular: Michael Manning, the Matanzas High School senior and student representatives on the board, who initiated the proposal to loosen the dress code and shepherded it to conclusion; and Gregory Gadrner, a Buddy Taylor Middle School student who petitioned the board for a looser policy in March—submitting a set of petitions from fellow-students—and lectured it about free expression in the American tradition. McDonald, a reputed conservative, was especially complimentary of Gardner tonight, referring to his speech and his ideas repeatedly, and singling him out for thanks, though Gardner’s work will benefit upper grade students, not middle school students. (See the complete speech below.)
“As long as what you wear is not something that hurts anyone or something that brings real cause for the belief that of danger then you should be allowed to wear it,” Gardner had said to the board in March. “We are able to talk freely without extremely rude things said in school so why can’t we wear things under those kinds of rules? We used to have a dress code policy that was very lenient, the clothes just had to be morally right to wear.”
Conklin had wanted to liberalize the dress code even more, eliminating all limitations on collared shirts, not just open them up to plaid and stripes. “If it’s a striped, collared dress shirt, that would be acceptable,” Conklin said. “If it had pinstripes on it, any color basically, any pattern.” She said that was the recommendation she’d heard from faculty and deans “who are saying it’s ridiculous when you have a child who is dressed sharp, to the nines, with a collared shirt, pressed, looks sharp, but it has thin stripes on it, they are put in a position of writing this child up. It’s silly. I’m not saying throw away the uniform policy at all. What I am saying is, if we’re going to be allowing for the use of a school t-shirt, we certainly should be open to the discussion of a professional looking collared shirt of any color, any color means any pattern, any color.”
But she ran into resistance from Dickinson and board member Trevor Tucker. Tucker considered the stricter rule a safety issue, to prevent strangers from blending in with the student body. Dickinson did as well, but also wanted a stricter code regardless.
“You might as well take the dress code out,” Dickinson told Conklin, “because what are we limiting at that point, and how are we protecting our students in our schools if we say any color? It’s one thing to say we’re going to have school spirit days and the kids are going to wear spirit clothes or the school clothing or whatever, any day that they wish. But to alter it completely, you need to be a lot more specific.”
Dickinson openly and rather blatantly questioned Conklin’s veracity when Conklin claimed that she was merely putting forth faculty recommendations.
“I’d like to hear it from staff because I talked to staff and staff told me completely opposite,” Dickinson said.
“I find that very surprising,” Conklin retorted. “I’m not even going to sit here and play games.”
Katrina Townsend, the director of student services who’s been the point person on dress code matters for years, found herself in the position of arbitrator, and diplomatically offered a sum-up: “There are some staff members who would say it would simplify the disciplinary routine if you could wear anything,” Townsend said, “but then when there was lengthy discussion about it, the questions came up, so then could the students wear Hawaiian shirts, like with the big flower prints. Could they then wear this, could they wear that. From an enforcement perspective, honestly, the more simplified is generally easier to use, and to enforce. That was the recommendation.”
Board member Andy Dance, possibly the most successful consensus builder on any local government board, offered a compromise: rather than Conklin’s elimination of the solid rule, he offered the stripes and plaid additions.
That worked. And after a little more sniping between Conklin and Dickinson over the procedural matter of the vote, the board voted 3-2 to adopt the new policy, with Trucker and Dickinson in dissent.
Manning, the student board member, had the last word on the matter later in the evening, as he spoke his last comments as a student board member (he’s graduating).
“Tonight showed how far we’ve come over a few months,” Manning said. “When I proposed spirit-wear shirts, I never imagined touching regular polos, and then in the matter of 10 minutes we changed that as well, so I think that shows a lot of growth from this board. The board had a great opportunity to listen to students, to listen to parents, and they did. I think that’s a great win for students and parents as well. So I couldn’t be more pleased for how things worked out.”
Pressing his advantage, he left the board with a brand new initiative to tackle in his absence: the paving of Matanzas High School’s parking lot.”Should I end it just saying thank you? It wouldn’t seem fitting. So I would decide to go with proposing a new idea,” he said.
The following is the complete speech Buddy Taylor Middle School student Gregory Gardner spoke to the school board in March, when he submitted a petition from fellow students asking for a more relaxed dress code. Regretfully, Gardner will not be able to benefit from the policy he had a strong hand in changing, as he will be moving with his family come June to Polk County, as close to a militarized county and school district as there is in Florida.
We as Americans do have freedom of expression. But sometimes I can find myself questioning this. In school, we can’t wear a t-shirt, we can only wear solid colored pants, there are limits on our jackets. And we call this acceptable? The school district forces us to wear certain colored collared shirts, yet our First Amendment rights allow us to do as we want, as long as doing so harms no one. Does wearing my favorite shirt hurt someone? I don’t think so. In the Supreme Court court case Tinker vs. Des Moines they said that constitutional rights are not completely taken away when one walks into a public school. So when the school goes and says that someone is not allowed to wear certain clothes, are they going against our constitutional rights? I believe so.
The freedom of expression as given in the First Amendment allows us to do, say wear, think, and act however we want to. If we want to stand at the White House and scream “MR. PRESIDENT YOU SUCK” from dawn to dusk, we can. We can also wear the clothes that we like, whether it says, “it’s a nice day” on the shirt or “the world is a terrible place.” Yes, there are some that say that in school your are stripped of these rights and must obey any rule that the school makes. This is true to an extent. If the school says no foul language, that is perfectly fine, you probably shouldn’t be using it anyway. This protects others around you from hearing you say things that are rude and explicit. You can still express how you feel and have your point made just as well. But let’s say the schools were to say that you cannot speak anything at all but things that are extremely positive, and that if you did not follow this rule you are suspended. This is wrong. What if you do not agree with something, and you feel strongly against it, then you are suspended for it? That is when the school has gone too far. So what’s the difference? To be completely honest, there is none.
So where exactly does freedom of expression end? When someone is starting to be harmful in the way that he or she express themselves. Things that qualify as harmful would be things like wearing a realistic bomb vest to a bank saying it’s armed and holding up the building. Another thing would be to wear clothing that looks like a jail uniform that says “Guantanamo inmate, high level of danger.” These both are things that frighten people and make them believe that there is real danger. As long as what you wear is not something that hurts anyone or something that brings real cause for danger, then you should be allowed to wear it. We are able to talk freely without extremely rude things said in school. Why can’t we wear things under those kinds of rules? We used to have a dress code policy that was very lenient. Clothes just had to be morally right to wear.
With all of this said, in the Supreme Court in Tinker ruled 7-2 that students do not shed all of their rights just by entering school and therefore can wear what they want. We should be able to run on a dress policy of modesty instead of having a strict dress code in witch we have such little choice in what to wear. The case was actually regarding a school banning students from wearing certain items of clothing protesting the Vietnam War. Courts said that schools can enforce rules that can keep people safe, but to go as far as saying that the students couldn’t wear things that were not harmful nor rude was wrong.
We as citizens of the United States do not immediately loose or rights by walking into school. Dressing as we want is expression. If you want to wear clothes that are dark and gloomy, you can. If you want to wear things that are bright and fun, you can. The schools should not take this right from you. We have freedom of expression, protected by the First Amendment. We need to fight to keep this right.
I like to be able to wear what I want. In school, that can’t happen. We have rights but apparently the school system does not acknowledge them. In school we should be able to wear what we want and express ourselves freely. The only way things can change is if students and parents speak up and have our voices heard so that this current policy might be changed.