Dress codes take on a sea of bared flesh at schools

Days when torn jeans tested limits of tolerance are a fond memory

September 23, 2001|By Kate Zernike | By Kate Zernike,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MILLBURN, N.J. - In the tumult of bare skin that is the hallway of Millburn High School, Michele Pitts is the Enforcer.

"Hon, put the sweater on," she barks at a pair of bare shoulders.

"Lose those flip-flops," to a pair of bare legs.

One student waves her off as Pitts crosses her arms in a "Cover that cleavage" sign. "You talked to me already," the girl insists, then promises, "Tomorrow!" as she disappears around a corner.

Baseball caps, a taboo of yesteryear, pass by unchallenged, having slipped in severity on a list of offenses that now include exposed bellies, backs and thighs. For Pitts, the assistant principal here, there is simply too much skin to cover.

With Britney Spears and CosmoGirl setting the fashion trends, shirts and skirts are inching up, pants are slipping down, and schools across the country are finding themselves forced to police their hallways.

With Ten Commandments

This fall, New York state is requiring all public school districts to adopt dress codes as part of a larger code of conduct. In North Carolina, the bill that allowed schools to post the Ten Commandments also required them to institute dress codes.

The days when torn jeans tested the limits of acceptance are now a fond memory. Today, schools feel the need to remind students that see-through clothing is not appropriate in the classroom. (The Liverpool Central School District, in upstate New York, learned this from experience, when two high school girls showed up on Halloween dressed in Saran Wrap. Only one appeared to be wearing underwear.)

In the new dress codes, spaghetti straps are forbidden (straps must be no less than an inch and a half wide), as is clothing that "bares the private parts"; fishnet stockings and shirts; T-shirts with lewd messages; flip-flops or other clothing more suited to the beach; and skirts or shorts higher than midthigh. Boys cannot wear tank tops or droopy athletic shorts.

One school district in Massachusetts forbids girls to wear shirts that expose any skin below the neck, and low-cut necklines are banned in most places, as are pants cut or worn so low that underwear peeks above the waist. One high school principal in an Atlanta suburb boasts of keeping twist-ties in her drawer to hoist boys' pants. Others rely on a more traditional stash of belts.

Schools are finding it hard to keep up with designers' creativity in finding new ways to expose skin. Just as the new codes banned tube tops and backless shirts, schools are realizing they need rules against the new one-shoulder tops.

"The boys sometimes look a little sloppy," said Keith A. Neigel, the principal at Millburn High. "But the girls; the girls don't have much in the way of clothing on."

While dress codes in the past have revolved around matters of taste (long hair) or safety (hats or bandannas in gang colors) the latest ones try to rein in what schools see as rampant sexualization of teen-agers.

A continuum

The way schools and psychologists see it, the continuum begins with skimpy clothes, moves into "freak dancing," in which students grind their pelvises together in simulated sex, and ultimately, incidents like the one in Chappaqua in which parents went along as high school football players hired a stripper for a party to inaugurate the season.

"Kids are supposed to test the limits; you worry about it if they don't do that," said Deborah M. Roffman, author of The Thinking Parents' Guide to Talking Sense About Sex. "But the message now is that there are no limits."

In the past, parents would often back up the schools' strictness. But today's parents, who came of age themselves challenging more conservative dress codes, like the banning of miniskirts 30 years ago, are often reluctant to challenge their children. This has left schools to push harder.

The schools say they are protected by court decisions affirming their right to ban clothing that can be provocative or disruptive.

Here in Millburn, a suburb of Land-Rovers and Neiman Marcus that regularly sends its graduates to the nation's top-ranked colleges, the high school revamped a long-ignored dress code last year as teachers grew more and more alarmed at what students were wearing. In assemblies to mark the opening of school, the principal, Neigel, spoke to students about the importance of self-respect, which he said includes dressing appropriately.

He also told students the code would be strictly enforced. Fair or not, the punishment has been trained mostly on the girls, whose clothes tend to break more rules.

"If I have to talk to you again," Pitts warned one on the third day of school.

"It's the same kids again and - oops, another one," she says, running to catch another pair of shoulders.

"I lost her, I'll get her later," she says, returning, then "Whoa! Excuse me," to a sophomore whose stretch spaghetti strap top has inched up to expose the edge of her rib cage. The girl smiles as she tugs the top down, then pushes through a door into a stairwell.

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