Area schools ponder stricter dress codes

Faculty, students want tougher guidelines

`A lot of us are insulted'

Some concerns raised about enforcing the rules

May 20, 2002|By Jennifer McMenamin and Lane Harvey Brown | Jennifer McMenamin and Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

Bothered by bare midriffs, baggy pants and barely-there miniskirts, many schools in the Baltimore area are considering stricter student dress codes.

Harford County's school board is scheduled to vote tonight on new rules that would be the toughest in the region, banning untucked shirts, miniskirts and pants that drag on the ground.

Carroll County schools, responding to a request from student leaders, is studying a proposal to ban hats, visors and bandanas, as well as short skirts and bellybutton-baring tops.

And other public schools, especially in Baltimore, are following the lead of Walbrook High School, which decided several years ago to abandon the dress code debate and adopt school uniforms.

Much of the increased scrutiny has been triggered by concerns over safety and neatness. But some educators say tough dress codes yield greater benefits.

"When you go to uniforms or a more strict dress code, there's a ripple effect," said Principal Laura D'Anna of Patterson High in Baltimore, where the school community voted two years ago to switch to uniforms of khaki pants, skirts or shorts and baby-blue embroidered oxford shirts. "There's a distinct difference in the way [students] act and conduct themselves. They care a lot more about the way they look and there are not as many altercations. Even at the prom, kids were less inclined to come in inappropriate attire."

That's a common view across the nation, according to a January phone survey by the nonprofit organization Public Agenda. The survey, "Rudeness in America," found that 84 percent of adults favored public school dress codes as an effective way to prevent students from wearing clothes that are too revealing or too sloppy.

The threads of Maryland's public school dress codes can be traced to the 1970s, when lenient and rarely enforced rules began appearing in student handbooks. In the 1980s, many schools debated whether students could wear shorts. More recently, as teen-agers' attire mimicked pop star Britney Spears' and hip-hop artists' wardrobes, educators layered on more rules.

School districts generally require students to dress in a "modest and appropriate manner," and prohibit clothing that depicts or alludes to profanity, smoking, drugs, alcohol and sex. Many schools add restrictions on hats, bare shoulders and prescribe lengths for shorts and skirts.

But problems crop up, students and administrators say, in consistency and enforcement.

At meetings in Carroll, students wondered why kids from other schools dressed differently, noting that "what we're allowed to wear at [Francis Scott Key] they would get suspended for wearing at Westminster," Andrea Keefer, 17, told the school board this month. "People think that students don't care, but a lot of us are insulted walking through the halls and seeing our peers wearing things that they wouldn't wear on the beach."

After eight months of debate, the 125-member Carroll County Student Government Association has proposed a dress code far stricter than anything most administrators would suggest.

In addition to the ban on hats, visors and bandanas, shirts would be required to have two straps, cover the entire back and reach to the top of students' pants, skirt or shorts. Skirts would have to be of a modest length, resting at mid-thigh when a girl is seated.

Harford County proposals are tougher. Included are rules requiring students to tuck in shirts and wear belts with pants and skirts, and forbidding shorts or skirts that do not reach a student's longest fingertip when the arm is extended downward.

The proposed policy and enforcement guidelines -- more strict than Baltimore's detailed dress code, which bans leather, fur and animal skin (real or faux), along with hair rollers, pajamas, flip-flops and skirts above the knee -- are designed to ensure a neater and safer student body, school board members say.

Harford's rules also aim to make it harder for students to smuggle weapons into school under baggy clothing -- even though that has rarely occurred.

Harford County school board member Thomas D. Hess said guidelines must be "reasonable and enforceable." If they aren't, he said, "they don't do anyone any good."

But Stephen Williams, principal of Havre de Grace High School, raised a concern common among school administrators: "I applaud the effort and understand from where it comes. But I wish to heck somebody else was coming here to enforce it."

Faculty have enough to do without having to stop students in the hall and ask them to lift their shirts to see if they're wearing a belt, Williams said. He's also concerned about eroding the relationship between administrators and students.

"The reason that our schools have been safe all along is because we have taken great pains to establish an open relationship with kids. ..." he said. "Once we get to the point where the kids don't trust us or don't like us and stop talking to us about what's going on at school, we're dead in the water."

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