Infamy in a dress

Published 9:54 pm Thursday, February 9, 2012

The whole world learned something about Suffolk’s public schools on Thursday.

With the school system struggling to meet state standards of accreditation, with teachers facing their fourth year in a row without raises and with various programs at risk of being shut down in order to meet budgetary constraints, folks around the United States — and anyone else with Internet service — could have learned something about the dedicated teachers in the city who are finding new ways to impart a love of learning to their young charges. They could have learned about the students who achieve great things in the face of a culture of indifference. And they could have learned a little about the proud history of Suffolk schools.

What just about anyone who surfed over to an English-language news website learned about Suffolk, instead, was that there’s a move afoot on the School Board to ban cross-dressing in public schools. Headlines and stories appeared on all of the local news sites, on Fox News’ homepage, on the Drudge Report, on USA Today’s page and even on the U.K.’s Daily Mail website, to name just a few.

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When School Board member Thelma Hinton said in a meeting at the end of the last school year that she had been told there was a problem at one of Suffolk high schools with a boy coming to school dressed as a girl, folks hardly knew whether to take her seriously. The more level-headed people in the community hoped the summer break would sort things out a bit, that the cross-dressing horror might subside or that Hinton would conclude it was no longer a threat to public safety.

Sadly, such an outcome wasn’t to be. Following Hinton’s direction, School Superintendent Deran Whitney was set to present to the School Board on Thursday a new proposed dress code that would expressly prohibit boys from wearing skirts to school.

When preview stories appeared in the Suffolk News-Herald, the Virginian-Pilot and the Daily Press, the news went viral, in the parlance of the information age. At one point on Thursday, a Google search for “Suffolk cross-dressing” yielded six pages of results before turning up the first irrelevant links.

In an attempt to make the best of the situation, some bloggers suggested that addressing the issue could result in a needed discussion about uniforms in schools. Officials were not expected to make any decision on the matter on Thursday, and there’s a good chance such a discussion still could arise as a result of Hinton’s request.

But the damage to Suffolk’s reputation has been done. The city will long be known around the Internet as the one that sought to keep teenaged boys out of dresses in the name of public safety.

There’s so much to be proud of in Suffolk. Unfortunately, this is not one of those things.