Board approves amended dress code

Published 10:49 pm Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Suffolk School Board on Thursday approved a revised student dress code that does not include any mention of gender-specific clothing.

An original proposal would have prohibited student clothing that “is not in keeping with a student’s gender.”

But the new policy, which was changed based on board members’ comments at their February meeting, simply states that any clothing that causes a disruption or safety issue may be prohibited after the principal or his designee documents the exact nature of the disruption or safety issue.

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Several transgender people and friends of those who are transgender attended the meeting to thank the board for removing the language targeting gender-specific clothing.

One visitor, Connor Norton, said he knows three alumni of Suffolk high schools who are transgender but were afraid to come out during their time in Suffolk schools.

“After I heard of these amendments, I just had to say thank you,” he said.

Ashley Blanton, a resident of Suffolk and graduate of Suffolk Public Schools, said a close friend of her younger sister, who still attends school in Suffolk, would have been affected by the policy.

“It is not helpful to force the child to act in a gender conforming way,” she said, suggesting that the schools look into forming gay-straight alliances.

School Board Vice Chair Thelma Hinton disagreed with the amendment, saying it should have been left the way it was.

“There’s no way I’m going to support this policy,” she said.

Some School Board members, including Linda Bouchard, were concerned about the possibility of lawsuits for restricting students’ freedom of expression. Already, groups like the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia had called the original policy “a virtual invitation to litigation.”

“These are public schools, and this is 2012,” she said. “Are we going to be able to afford the lawsuits we’re going to get? I think we need to stop making a big deal about it, let it die down and have a reasonable dress code.”

Hinton said she, too, was concerned about lawsuits, but more of the kind that might result if a student got hurt by bullies. She suggested Bouchard “go down to King’s Fork High School” — where she says teachers have complained about boys dressing in feminine clothing — and talk to teachers.

“If we restrict their civil rights, we’re going to get a lot more lawsuits,” Bouchard said.

Board member Phyllis Byrum said she wants to take a look at the bullying policy to see if it can be revamped to prevent bullies targeting students because of the way they dress.

An additional amendment to the final policy removed original wording that would have prohibited Spandex because board members did not want to prohibit Spandex pants being worn as tights under a dress or skirt.

In the final vote, Hinton and Enoch Copeland voted against the policy and Bouchard abstained.