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Dress code might be due some alterations

The School Board will hash out what kids must wear for two key events.

By MELANIE AVE, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 20, 2003

TAMPA -- After several public challenges to the school district's dress code, Hillsborough School Board members have agreed to discuss what high school seniors should be allowed to wear in yearbook photos and at graduation.

Board member Jennifer Faliero said she disagrees with the policy in some schools that requires girls to wear dresses under their graduation gowns and off-the-shoulder drapes in their senior pictures.

"I feel like in the 21st century women have progressed to pantsuits," she said. "Requiring them to wear a dress is outdated."

Board member Candy Olson said she also thinks the drape is archaic. "I think the kids ought to decide. It's their yearbook and their graduation, and they take it very, very seriously."

The board will take up the dress code at a workshop scheduled for March 4. But the clothing issue has been simmering for months, heated by students who have publicly challenged what they consider arbitrary limits on their freedom of expression.

This year, Middleton High School student Antonio "Loloe" Williams was sent home from school several times after he showed up in a skirt. He's back in school now, but only after agreeing not to wear women's clothing.

Last year, Robinson High School graduate Nikki Youngblood sued the school district for requiring her to wear a feminine-style drape for her senior picture. Because she insisted on wearing a suit, her picture was not taken. Her lawsuit is pending in federal court.

And two Bloomingdale High School senior girls fought against a school rule requiring them to wear dresses under their caps and gowns. They wanted to wear pants. They challenged the district and eventually won.

District officials say they don't dictate what students wear at graduation or in yearbook photos. Their only requirement is that the attire meet the decency standards outlined in the dress code. Clothing such as short shorts, for example, or shirts with spaghetti straps, are banned.

The final determination on what is acceptable is usually made at the school level, officials said. That's true in other Florida districts, including Pinellas County.

Many Hillsborough schools, however, require boys to wear ties and girls to wear off-the-shoulder drapes for yearbook photos. They also ask students to wear professional clothing for graduation, which is often interpreted as dresses only for girls.

Some students, including Riverview High's Megan Robinson, want to choose their own outfit when they sit for senior pictures next year.

"If you're dressed appropriately and look decent, why shouldn't you be able to wear what you want?" asks Robinson, 17.

University of South Florida professor Cheryl Hall says the clothing restrictions imposed by some schools are absurd. She is urging board members to eliminate "gender bias in the Hillsborough school dress codes."

She wrote the School Board after hearing about the issue from Equality Florida, a Tampa-based social justice group.

"The policy requiring female students to wear a scoop neck drape is out of step with the times and should be changed," Hall wrote.

School district spokesman Mark Hart said many schools stick to what students have historically worn in class pictures and at graduation. He thinks the key issue is what constitutes "professional attire."

"The issue begs the question of whether the schools need some guidance," Hart said. "I'm not a fashion expert, but 10 or 15 years ago, pant suits may not have been considered business attire for women. Hillary Clinton won a U.S. Senate seat wearing black pantsuits."

Faliero said she thinks students should be able to wear what they want, as long as it doesn't violate the dress code.

"Right now," she said, "it's open to too much interpretation."

-- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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