Plans to update dress code ignore cultural expression

Superintendent opts to omit issue despite equity council's pleas

August 19, 1999|By Erika D. Peterman | Erika D. Peterman,SUN STAFF

Browse through the Howard County school system's proposal to update its dress code and you'll see the usual prohibited suspects:

No obscene slogans on T-shirts. No caps promoting tobacco, drugs or alcohol. No overly revealing outfits exposing too much skin or underwear.

But though the school system was taken to court -- and prevailed -- over the question of an African-style head wrap, nothing in the code addresses ethnic or cultural dress.

FOR THE RECORD - In an article in Thursday's Howard edition, incorrect dates for a hearing and vote on the proposed dress code for the Howard County school system were reported. The public hearing will be Sept. 9 and the school board will vote Sept. 23.
The Sun regrets the errors.

Superintendent Michael E. Hickey said the decision to omit that issue was his, despite lobbying from members of the school system's equity council.

"I just saw it as creating even more of a morass of misunderstanding and confusion," Hickey said. "However, I did say to them that there is nothing in the language of that policy that says you can't express your culture or your ethnicity. The principal makes a decision and we take it from there."

During the 1997-1998 school year, Shermia Isaacs, then a

Harper's Choice Middle School pupil, was barred from wearing an African-style head wrap to school because of a no-hats policy. An attorney for the pupil challenged the policy in a U.S. District Court lawsuit, but the school's decision was upheld.

Neither Shermia nor her mother, Stacey Isaacs, could be reached for comment. Attorney Lawrence S. Greenwald was on vacation.

Hickey said the proposed minor changes in the dress code were not prompted by the head-wrap incident. The school system had begun a review of the code because of concerns about consistency from principals, he said.

Though the equity council -- a group of administrators of various ethnic backgrounds -- was intended to have a broad focus, the issue of cultural dress quickly became a dominant topic of discussion, Hickey said.

Members of the council insisted that the revised dress code make provisions for cultural expression, but Hickey argued that doing so would create more problems than it would solve.

"My concern was that ethnicity and culture are not things that are constitutionally guaranteed property rights like race, religion and so forth," Hickey said.

"Also, the terms themselves had as many different meanings as anything. There's a redneck culture that might want to wear shirts that have the Southern flag, which is a very painful thing, particularly for African-Americans.

"I would not want that sort of cultural expression."

Members of the council tried to create a clearer rule, but suggestions fell short, Hickey said. A public hearing on the dress code will be held at the Aug. 26 school board meeting, and a vote will be taken Sept. 9.

"I understand where they [equity council members] are coming from," Hickey said. "I just felt I would have created an untenable situation for the school system."

Hickey noted that many of the provisions in the dress code are up to individual principals for interpretation.

"I did not want to get into the position that some school systems were in 10, 15 years ago where principals were walking around with rulers measuring the length of girls' skirts," he said. "There's still room for interpretation in there. There's still room for dispute."

School board member Jane B. Schuchardt agreed with Hickey's decision to leave ethnicity and culture out of the proposed code.

"If you put one group in, where are you going to stop?" she said. "I was satisfied with that."

Proposed revised dress code

Proposed revised dress code for Howard County public schools:

I. Definitions

A. Attire -- Clothing, headwear, jewelry, bookbags, or other articles of personal appearance.

II. Regulations

A. Information regarding student attire during school hours and during other school activities shall be made known to all students, parents/guardians and staff members at the beginning of the school year, and when deemed necessary by the principal.

B. It shall be a violation of this policy for any student to wear attire that interferes with the educational mission of schools, is disruptive to the school environment, or that could endanger the health or safety of that student or others during school hours and school activities. This includes, but is not limited to, attire that:

1. Depicts profanity, obscenity, the use of weapons, or violence.

2. Promotes use of tobacco, drugs, alcohol, or other illegal or harmful products.

3. Contains sexually suggestive messages.

4. Unduly exposes or reveals skin or undergarments.

5. Depicts gang affiliation.

6. Contains language or symbols that demean an identifiable person or group or otherwise infringe on the rights of others.

7. Causes or is likely to cause a substantial or material disruption to the school activities or the orderly operation of the school.

8. Contains rude, disrespectful, or discourteous expressions inconsistent with civil discourse or behavior.

C. Alleged violations of this policy arising from attire worn for medical reasons or as an expression of a student's religious practices shall be given special consideration before a final determination is made.

D. Personal appearance shall meet health and sanitary standards.

E. Schools are authorized to develop school-specific dress code policies that incorporate the provisions of this policy as a minimum standard in order to establish an appropriate learning environment.

Source: Howard County school system

Pub Date: 8/19/99

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