Dress Code For Schools Draws Heat

BROOKSVILLE – Members of the Hernando County School Board may have a lawsuit on their hands if a unified dress policy passes without an “opt-out” policy for parents who don’t want their children to participate.

A day after board members voiced general approval for a proposed districtwide “uniform code” for the 2008-09 school year at a workshop Tuesday – which will require students at the majority of the district’s schools to adhere to general guidelines such as neutral solid-color pants, shirts or shorts and polo-style shirts – at least one local parent is threatening legal action.

Hernando Beach resident Larry Scott, a member of the School Advisory Council at Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics, said he does not agree with the policy of forcing children to conform to “someone else’s idea of proper clothing.”

He said he thinks such a measure intrudes on parents’ rights to decide what’s appropriate for their children, and inhibits students’ freedom of expression.

“The family unit is the oldest family structure that society knows of, and there’s a reason it’s endured,” he said. “They’re intruding on the proper duty of the parent.”

While the issue must still pass an official vote at a future school board meeting, the move marks the first time some of Hernando County’s schools have implemented specific dress guidelines.

Those that already have board-approved “uniform codes” include Brooksville, Chocachatti, Moton, Pine Grove, Spring Hill and Suncoast elementary schools, the elementary grades at Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics, and Parrott Middle School.

Those with uniform codes seeking approval are the middle school grades at Challenger, all grades at Explorer K-8 and J.D. Floyd K-8, Deltona, Eastside and Westside elementary schools and Fox Chapel, Parrott and West Hernando middle schools, all of which currently do not require strict dress guidelines.

Springstead High School also has future dress guidelines in the works.

But the right to an equal education is guaranteed by the state constitution, regardless of dress, said Scott, who has one child at Challenger and another at Nature Coast Technical High School.

Since the counties to the north and south of Hernando do not have unified dress policies, any “arbitrary barrier” to a child’s attendance at school would have to be defended in court, Scott said.

“If I have to file suit, there would be several grounds I do this on, not just one,” he said, pointing toward students where a uniform may be against their religious beliefs or other personal standards.

“The more you take choices away from children and force conformity, the more you diminish their creativity and individuality, which are qualities the world really needs right now,” Scott added. “We need good minds that think outside the box.”

However, he said he would be content with the policy if the district creates an “opt-out” clause, allowing parents to sign a form stating that their child will not participate in the uniform policy.

He said his daughter would be OK with being part of a small minority of children not participating in the dress policy.

“She’s OK with it. She wants to wear what she chooses, and in the (style) and color that she chooses,” Scott said. “She’s a smart kid and capable of making those choices.”

Currently, all schools have dress codes in their student code of conduct, most of which primarily outline decency standards such as hemline length.

Administrators at the workshop agreed that a more uniform code would help eliminate distractions and keep the focus on academics.

Some parents agree.

“I tend to be a little biased because I have a son who hasn’t experienced middle school yet,” said Brooksville resident Mary Scaglione, whose child is currently in fifth grade at Challenger. “He’s been in uniforms his entire school career, so this will be no different.”

Her son previously attended a private school where he was required to stick to a red, white or blue shirt, while the current dress policy for elementary school grades at Challenger has allowed him to wear any color polo shirt he chooses.

“I’m sure it’s going to be difficult for those children who have had the freedom, if you will, of (adhering to) a dress code, but it will probably be a little easier on the ones going into sixth grade.”

For the most part, the dress guidelines require solid-color slacks, skirts, Capri (pants) or shorts, with solid-color collared shirts.

However, rules vary by school, with some schools requiring specific colors. Each code has been previously approved by each school’s SAC committee.

A date has not yet been set for final school board approval, but Scott said he’ll be watching.

“If they don’t create an opt-out provision, I will be testing it,” he said. “It would be good if the school board considered what I’m pointing out here, and looked at other counties with opt-out provisions and avoided (potential) expensive court costs.”

School board attorney Paul Carland was not available for comment at press time.

Reporter Linnea Brown can be reached at 352-544-5289 or lbrown@hernandotoday.com.

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