Admin readdresses new code

Published 10:14 pm Tuesday, March 6, 2012

School administrators have changed course on a student dress code policy that caused a stir when it was proposed last month.

The School Board could vote on the new code on Thursday. As it was originally written, it would have prevented students from wearing clothing “not in keeping with a student’s gender.”

That language — though only a small part of the code, which also prohibits short skirts, ripped or sagging pants, revealing shirts and other clothing deemed inappropriate — caused backlash from civil rights groups who said it took away students’ right of expression and others who just felt it was a distraction from larger issues like the budget.

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In a letter sent last month, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia said the policy was unlawful, unconstitutionally vague and “a virtual invitation to litigation.”

The school division has put forth different wording based on the reaction of School Board members last month. The new version includes no reference to gender.

School Board Vice Chair Thelma Hinton, who lobbied for the original wording, said she feels the policy has been “melted down.” She first raised the issue last year based on complaints she had heard about boys wearing dresses and makeup at one of the city’s high schools.

She contended that her concern was about safety, because the boys reportedly did not use the student restrooms for fear of being beaten.

“My concern is, are we putting them in danger to some degree,” she said Tuesday. “My concern was the safety issue.”

According to the letter from the ACLU, schools are liable for allowing students to be harassed based on gender perceptions.

Hinton said she intends to raise some questions with the School Board attorney during Thursday’s meeting.

“We’ve got to face the issue,” she said. “Is it that individuals have a right to do freedom of expression? People can be whatever they want to be, but what really are the policies?”

The new proposed dress code would require principals to document, in writing, that certain clothing is causing a substantial disruption, distraction or health concern. Only after it is documented could the clothing be banned.

“This policy is dancing around it,” Hinton said. “If we rubber-stamp something, then we’ll be back at square one again. I have some tough questions that I need to know.”

The meeting begins at 7 p.m. Thursday in City Council chambers, 441 Market St. It also includes a public hearing and discussion on the budget.