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.
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.
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.
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.