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School dress code may change

Pinellas School Board members will seek input about a stricter code that could require uniforms.

Published January 26, 2005

[Times photo: Bill Serne
Proposals include more specific bans on visible underwear, which Riviera Middle principal James Bartlett finds on a student.

LARGO - Pinellas school officials are moving toward a stricter dress code that would greatly reduce wardrobe choices for the district's students.

Some School Board members said Tuesday they are open to uniforms; others said they prefer a uniform-like code that would limit school dress to certain types of shirts and pants.

A board majority said they plan to ask the public for input first. In the weeks ahead, a panel of district administrators will help superintendent Clayton Wilcox develop a suggested code and a plan to include parents in the decision.

The board and district staff are on a timetable for enacting major changes in time for the start of the 2005-06 school year in August.

"The sooner we can get this done so that kids can get back to the business of learning, the better off we are," said School Board member Mary Brown.

Thousands of elementary and middle school students at Pinellas fundamental schools already are subject to dress requirements that are stricter than the district's general dress code. And several elementary schools require uniforms.

But the vast majority of students are subject only to the general code, which says student clothing "will be neat and clean," then lists several banned items, including sexually suggestive phrases on clothing and sunglasses worn indoors.

School Board members and administrators say tightening the code will reduce disputes over student dress that distract educators from the business of teaching.

"We have many problems," Brown said. "Let's eliminate one of them."

Administrators handed the board a list of proposed changes to the code on Tuesday, including more specific bans on bare midriffs, visible underwear and blouses worn off the shoulder. But board members said those changes did not go far enough and did not comply with their wish to make the code easier to understand and enforce.

The board is likely to hear a broad range of opinions from the public.

Jill Durbin, whose daughter goes to Pinellas Park High, said she likes uniforms because they make everyone equal. "Not everyone can afford to dress cool," she said, "and I feel sorry for kids that can't afford it."

But she said instituting uniforms is too problematic.

School officials "fight the same battle every year," she said. "Why? Just let it go."

Her daughter, Alysha Phelps, said the dress code already is too strict.

"They are overboard," she said. "They are taking us out of class just because they think a bra strap is showing. That's ridiculous."

Some board members have a completely different view. They say the model for what they want already exists in a handful of other Florida counties.

One of them is Polk County, where students in kindergarten through eighth grade are required to wear blue or white collared shirts, such as oxford or polo shirts. Pants, shorts and skirts must be dark blue, black or khaki and must be made of denim, corduroy or twill.

Hundreds of Polk parents filed a federal lawsuit against the code in 1999, arguing it was unevenly enforced. The suit also said the code infringed on parental rights and stifled students' freedom of expression. A U.S. district judge in Tampa ruled in 2002 that the code did not violate the U.S. Constitution.

After hearing the Pinellas School Board describe their dress code likes and dislikes, Wilcox said he and his staff will begin drafting a proposed code that contemplates uniforms or similar dress such as button-down shirts with sleeves, belted pants and conservative skirts.

The father of a son and daughter who attend a district elementary school, Wilcox said he has been surprised and concerned by the child fashions he sees in stores.

Brown urged the board to move as quickly as possible so a new code can be in place for next school year. She expressed impatience with colleagues who wanted to move more deliberatively.

"We're not building a city here," she said. "We seem to be making a huge issue out of this."

Brown was overruled by other board members.

"If we don't empower our community, we're just an autocratic board that's going to tell them what to do, and I'm not going to do that," argued board member Jane Gallucci. Among those who need plenty of notice before a dress code change, she said, are low-income families faced with buying new wardrobes.

"I think that the parents are ready to take back the schools" through a stricter dress code, said board member Mary Russell. But she insisted the district first have a "conversation with the community" and discuss how it plans to enforce such a code.

Board member Carol Cook said the public will weigh in whether the board invites them or not. Better to have them participate before a decision is made, she said.

Kori Hendricks-Ralston and husband Mark Ralston disagreed Tuesday on whether uniforms are appropriate. The Seminole couple has two young children; the eldest began kindergarten this year.

Mark Ralston said he wore uniforms as a child, and students concentrated on their studies rather than on clothes.

"There was not time to waste in school talking about what people were wearing," he said. "It's not something kids should be worrying about."

His wife disagreed.

"I'm against uniforms - (students) should be able to have individuality and their own style," she said. "But I am for stricter rules, because some of the clothes are too revealing."

In other action Tuesday, the School Board decided against a policy change that would have paved the way for a mental health screening pilot program at one high school. The voluntary program also would have identified students who showed suicidal tendencies. It would have suggested treatment for such students with their parents' permission.

A majority of board members cited concerns about the program and said the existing policy governing student surveys did not need to be changed.

The lone supporter of the program, board member Linda Lerner, said it would have addressed the problem of teen suicide. She also said her fellow board members were intimidated by a vigorous e-mail campaign conducted by members of the Clearwater-based Church of Scientology.

Scientologists were opposed to the program, based on their vehement objections to psychiatry and psychology. Board members disputed Lerner's claim, saying they based their decision on many factors.

Information from Times staff writer Lauren Bayne Anderson, researcher Kitty Bennett and the Lakeland Ledger was used in this report.

[Last modified January 26, 2005, 04:57:40]

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