MOUNT VERNON — After nearly two years of discussion, parent surveys and more discussion, Mount Vernon High School’s standardized dress committee is ready to present its findings and recommendations to the school board.
The committee, comprised of teachers, parents, administrators, students and members of the student council, is expected to address the Board of Education at Monday’s meeting and submit a proposal for the board’s consideration.
The motivation behind the discussion and the committee, said assistant high school principal Sam Shuman, has to do with the disruption and distraction from education that teachers and staff saw as a result of what students were wearing or not wearing.
“Some of the recent styles, the extreme holes in the jeans, the low-riding pants, short shorts, the low-cut tops, the bare underarm, muscle-man type shirts,” Shuman said, “have all caused a lot of distraction from education.
“We focus on the academics, but instilling the skills for students to be successful is equally as important — dress, punctuality, attendance, respect. Those are things that are very important to their education. We see [standardized dress] as an extension of that.”
Shuman said this year’s stepped-up enforcement of the pre-existing dress code in the handbook has resulted in an improvement in the school climate; nevertheless, he said, there have been over 200 violations of the dress code since the beginning of the school year.
Superintendent Steve Short said perceived inconsistencies in the enforcement of the current code can be problematic, and a standardized dress policy would help.
“Sometimes people just interpret things differently,” he said.
“I think the balancing act for any school,” Shuman added, “is to maintain a safe and productive environment while still protecting the right of freedom of expression. I guess sometimes it boils down to the definition of the word ‘appropriate’. Everyone seemingly has a different definition of what’s appropriate and what’s not. Sometimes a parent sees something as appropriate, but we as a school see it as something that is disrupting the educational process. We are trying to reach that balance between the students’ right of freedom of expression and our need to just give them a good education and focus our resources there. It takes a lot of resources to enforce a dress code.”
“The bottom line to this whole thing is how can we better educate our kids,” Short said. “How can we better use the time of our administrators and teachers? How can we provide a better educational environment where we are not pulling kids out of class because of this or that reason and losing class time, being in the office, and taking up other administrative time? Just because we’re studying it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen, doesn’t mean we’re going to do it. It means, we are asking, ‘Is this a plan? Is this an idea? Is this something that we could do that would improve the educational experience for the students?’ We don’t want to squelch any individualism as far as kids being kids, but we also want to make sure that each and every student gets the opportunity to be in the best learning environment that we can provide.
“I know for a lot of people it’s a pretty sensitive issue, and that’s why the committee at the same time is discussing what this means to kids,” he continued. “It’s an issue we anticipate people being emotional about. What the committee is basically trying to do is to find a way that we can provide good educational experiences and allow the students the freedoms that they should have; the freedoms that are theirs, and also create a school environment that is conducive to learning and focused on learning.”
Shuman said another issue the standardized dress committee has been confronting is that every dress code is a reaction to the problems that the school had with dress the previous year.
“In other words,” he said, “we get inundated with issues of dress. Then we change the dress code, but then the fashions change and whatever. For example, we addressed issues in the 1999 dress code and 2000 brought a whole new set of problems. What we’re trying to do is come up with something that is proactive. Instead of saying, ‘You can’t wear this,’ and ‘You can’t wear this,’ we’re trying to say, ‘This is what you can wear. These are the things that we will encourage and permit you to wear.’”
Shuman said between 125 to 140 parent surveys were returned, with 55 percent to 60 percent in favor of some sort of standardized dress. According to Shuman, student council members are in favor of standardized dress.
“Several of the individual students have worked very hard with this,” he said. “And the discussions behind closed doors have been very healthy. Students have opinions and we have listened closely to what they’ve said. The recommendation that we’re going to make [to the school board] is one in which we’ve tried to permit as many choices as we can.”
“We try to be sympathetic where kids come from with regard to money and peer pressure,” Short said. “You might buy the $95 pairs of jeans because that’s what the other kids have. And if you’re not the person wearing the same clothes as someone else, that can cause problems.
“One of the things that is a concern in this whole process, and it’s a concern by everybody, is the cost [of standardized dress],” he continued. “I think we have shown that it actually would be cheaper to buy some of the things that would be part of the standardized dress policy. The discussion has also involved talks about how the school district plans to help those students who might not be able afford the required clothing. We are looking at maybe a kind of voucher system.”
If the school board is interested in taking a closer look at implementing a standardized dress policy, Short said he anticipates the board will take the time to hear people’s thoughts and comments on the issue, perhaps in a town hall sort of meeting.
Monday’s meeting will be held at 7:30 p.m. in the high school theater.