By Jack Petocz
If you’re roaming the halls of bustling Flagler Palm Coast High School, the impact of the district’s dress code is hard to miss, whether it’s administrators stalking students walking onto campus, spying for minor infractions, sending violators immediately to the dean, or hearing that chatter of frustration among my peers in response.
These voices of dissatisfaction from the student body have been amplified recently, not just with pleadings before the Flagler County School Board for some reasonable action. There was a dress-code strike on Aug. 20, and an online petition is still growing, with more than 1,300 signatures collected so far. Evidently, students and community members are eager for meaningful action now.
The district’s dress code is frankly irrational, outdated, unfair and sexist. It limits individual expression, and it’s an utter waste of time. Allow me to preface this argument with a few quoted examples from the secondary school code of conduct:
“Shirts must be standard short or long sleeve polo style, oxford style, or button- up dress shirt with a collar.”
“Bottom attire must be plain without any holes, tears, or unfinished hems.”
“Head coverings (bandanas, sweatbands, hoods and du-rags, etc.) will not be allowed inside the building.”
These excessive guidelines each have their issues but have this defining standard in common: conformity. They strip students of all individuality and expression, forbidding something as inoffensive as a non-collared shirt–in Florida of all places.
Female students are particularly and adversely affected, struggling to meet these requirements, specifically with bottom attire. Today, it is markedly difficult for my female peers to purchase bottoms that can adhere to such trivial standards, causing undue stress, and raising the not-so minore matter of discrimination: why should females have a greater burden than males to dress for school? What unequal message are we sending–that girls’ responsibility for acceptable attire is greater than that of boys?
Looking at the last standard listed above, regarding head coverings, district policy appears to restrict students’ ability to culturally and religiously express themselves. In order to be granted a religious exemption, the code of conduct states a discussion with the district and school principal must be conducted, raising significant barriers. Since when must religious expression be justified? Since when is it a burden? It shouldn’t be this difficult, especially when promoting inclusion is a stated district goal.
It is also important to note the exorbitant financial burden imposed on already-struggling families. As of 2019 the U.S. Census Bureau indicates that almost 10 percent of Flagler County residents live in poverty, but the rate for those in poverty who are younger than 18 is an astounding 16.5 percent, according to the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Demographic Research. So one out of six of your students lives in poverty. In a district with working parents scrambling to pay rent or purchase groceries, why impose a rigid policy that forces families to purchase hundreds of dollars’ worth of clothing, often year after year? Why the unjust burden if the children already own appropriate attire that happens not to be in strict compliance with the current code?
Furthermore, the disciplinary actions regarding such menial infractions are unjust and out of proportion. Something as simple as a non-collared plain shirt is cause for a student to be sent immediately to in-school suspension (ISS) for the remainder of the school day unless corrected. Seriously? A student will be penalized with a day’s loss of instruction because his or her working parent can’t be–and should not be–summoned to school with a replacement, at the risk of losing pay? This is what’s causing such individuals to miss out on valuable instructional time despite often wearing conventionally appropriate attire? I wonder if taxpayers at large know that this is how their tax dollars are being spent–in stalking, surveillance and punishment of minor dress infractions at the expense of the invaluable instructional time they assume they’re paying for.
In addition, disciplinary infractions have increased dramatically since the introduction of dress code, which reflects poorly on the district and needlessly taints a child’s academic record.
For all that, the matter that troubles me deepest is the impact enforcement of the dress code is having on our invaluable teachers and staff. The administration at Flagler Palm Coast High School has begun to instruct staff that if students are caught out of compliance with the code, teachers will be confronted. The administration will even examine the student’s schedule to question staff as to who had supervision prior to the violation being noticed. Many of my own teachers have talked with frustration about this new burden on them.
To the School Board and administration at FPC: Respectfully, do not threaten your staff. It’s embarrassing. Already overworked, underpaid and burdened with the anxieties of a global pandemic, it’s disheartening to see unnecessary additional stress placed upon them.
Looking at the coarse and nonsensical threads weaving this dress code, a strange thirst for power seems to be the only reason why the policy remains in place. Evidently, innumerable consequences have resulted from the mandate at every level. It’s time for amendments, because this daily dressing-down of students, teachers and staff at the cost of instructional time, gender equity, economic fairness, inclusion and common sense is making it difficult for Flagler Schools to live up to the goal of becoming the “nation’s premiere learning organization.”
I urge the Flagler School Board to hear the concerns of its students and constituents–and to act.
Jack Petocz is a junior at Flagler Palm Coast High School who plans on majoring in political science, with a minor in law, in college.