Board discusses dress code

Published 11:53 pm Thursday, February 9, 2012

School Board members discussed a new dress policy that would prohibit students cross-dressing in school during their board meeting Thursday night.

While they did not make any decision on the policy, they did get a very definite message from a transgender man who came to the meeting to express his concerns.

“There’s a way to combat this, and it’s not through forcing kids to deny who they are,” Julian Long said.

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Long, a Norfolk resident, reported being bullied and beat up “on a daily basis” when he was in school because he wore boys’ clothing and kept his hair short, even though he had been born a girl. When he reported it to his teachers, they said, “You brought it on yourself.”

They suggested he begin wearing his hair long and using makeup. But it didn’t work, he told the School Board. Other students still beat him up because they perceived that he was somehow different.

“It’s not a game for trans people,” he said after the meeting. “It’s a vital part of our identity.”

He said transgender people who are forced to deny who they are often drop out of school or become depressed and suicidal.

The School Board is considering a policy that would prevent “any clothing worn by a student that is not in keeping with a student’s gender and causes a disruption and/or distracts others from the educational process or poses a health or safety concern.”

Developed by a committee at the direction of the board, the new policy also would specifically prohibit suggestive or revealing attire, sagging pants and shorts, skirts or dresses that rise above fingertip level, clothing that advertises alcohol, drugs or lewd acts, clothing with words across the buttocks and other items.

School Board Vice Chair Thelma Hinton, who first raised the issue last year, said she is concerned about safety. She worries that a male student who dresses in feminine clothing will get bullied, beat up or, worse, killed.

“Something could happen to them,” she said. She cited a 2008 case from Ventura County, Calif., when a 14-year-old middle school student shot and killed a male classmate who had been wearing girl’s clothing and makeup.

School Board attorney Wendell Waller noted that the policy would not prohibit students from cross-dressing. Only if the clothing caused a disruption, distraction or safety concern would the student be forbidden from wearing it.

Long, who is a William and Mary law school graduate, said he did not doubt the School Board’s desire to protect all its students but thinks it would be better to deal with the bullies, rather than those who are bullied.

“When they see this policy, they’ll say, ‘Ah-ha! These kids, it’s OK for us to target these kids,’” he said. “You’re painting a target on their backs.”

Long brought resources for the School Board to look at, including the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network’s model policy for transgender students. The organization suggests that school districts allow students “to dress in accordance with their gender identity consistently asserted at school.”

“Obviously, everyone in this room cares deeply about student safety,” Long said. “But the proposed dress code policy will hurt children — children just like I was.”