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May 2-8, 2007

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Redwood Middle School students

Photograph by Patricia Lynn Henley
Much of a muchness: Redwood Middle School students must conform to a dress code or have their records permanently marked for disobedience.

Fashion Friction

Napa middle school's dress code sparks lawsuit

By Patricia Lynn Henley

For her first day as a seventh-grader at Redwood Middle School in Napa, Toni Kay Scott wore a denim skirt and a brown shirt with a pink border. The girl, known to her friends as T.K., also sported sensible school shoes and knee-high socks graced with images of the Winnie-the-Pooh character Tigger. Even before classes started on that fall day in 2005, the campus police officer had singled K. and another student out and taken them to the principal's office.

"It was kind of awkward," T.K. recalls, speaking from her napa home via a conference call which included her attorney and her mother. remembering that day, T.K. adds, "I'd never gotten talked to by a police officer before or gotten in trouble."

A third student was brought in after classes started. All three presented copies of letters their parents had sent the principal a week before, officially requesting that their children be allowed to "opt out" of the school's restrictive dress code. According to a recent lawsuit filed by five families--including T.K.'s--representing six students, the principal ignored the requests for exemptions to the dress code and ordered the three youngsters to spend the day in a program called Students with Attitude Problems.

"I missed the whole first day of school that year," explains T.K., an honor-roll student who enjoys math and science. "We just had to sit in a room. there was no talking. all we could do was read a book."

Because of the lawsuit, principal Michael Pearson declined to comment on specific incidents, but explained that the campus clothing policy started in 1996 as a response to local gang activity. Pearson has been principal of the 1,100-pupil campus for three years, and sees the dress code as a positive influence on a diverse student body that is 50 percent Caucasian and 50 percent Hispanic, with half of all families living on incomes below the poverty level.

"It's still a safety issue, although we don't have near the gang issues that we used to," Pearson explains. "It's our way of setting the tone here on campus, that our focus is on education."

Currently, students can wear only seven solid colors--blue, white, green, yellow, khaki, gray, brown and black--in cotton twill, chino or corduroy. No pink collar on a white shirt. No pink at all. No purple. No orange. No denim. No prints. No stripes. No logos. No drawings. No Tigger socks.

"This is a uniform," says T.K.'s mother, Donnell Scott. "I don't care how you word it, this is a uniform."

Pearson says the simplicity of the rules make them easy to enforce--there is no need for long discussions about whether a stripe is one or two inches wide--so that staff and faculty can focus on safety and education. In the lawsuit filed with the support of the ACLU and a private law firm, the Scotts and other families charge that the code goes too far, creating a de facto uniform policy. Under California law, students must follow a school's dress code, but families can choose to exempt their children from having to wear a school uniform.

Donnell Scott says she and the other families want their kids to have more options in dressing appropriately for school. They aren't demanding an anything-goes approach; they simply don't see how stripes, a flower print or Tigger socks are disruptive on a middle-school campus. Her younger daughter, Sydni, has also been cited at school.

"I'm getting sick and tired of schools telling me how to parent my child," Scott asserts calmly but forcefully. "This is a public school. Your job is to educate my child. I will dress her appropriately."

The heart of the issue, says Sonoma State University education professor Jim Fouche, is whether one favors an existentialist approach to teaching young people. Does the administration emphasize freedom of choice and personal responsibility, or a more traditional philosophy that standardized clothing rules creates a calmer classroom atmosphere and a stronger sense of belonging to a large group? There's also the matter of leveling differences in family incomes by downplaying or eliminating designer labels and logos.

Strict school dress codes or uniform policies tend to cycle in and out of fashion, Fouche says. With the recent emphasis on basic skills and standardized testing, the concept has resurfaced. Still, it's all a matter of opinion, advocacy and philosophy.

"If it was as simple as having kids put on uniforms and seeing a marked improvement in academic proficiency, then you'd see a lot more of it," Fouche explains. "I'm not aware of any evidence that would, in a casual way, link wearing or not wearing uniforms with academic performance."

A bell rings at 10am on the Redwood Middle School campus, and students pour out of classrooms for a 15-minute break. At first impression, the campus is a fairly homogeneous mass of dark and light colors. Everything, including backpacks, is in solid, subdued hues.

But as the students mix and mingle in the sunshine, subtle differences emerge. There are shorts, crop pants, slacks, skirts, long-sleeve or short-sleeve tops, lightweight hooded sweatshirts, cotton jackets. While initially their outfits seem rather uniform, no two students are wearing exactly the same thing.

Standing at the side of the swirling social mass of students, Principal Pearson points out a few minor dress code violations. Some are kids he'll talk to later. One young boy has white stripes down the sleeves of his jacket. Pearson explains it's the only jacket this kid has and his family can't afford another one. Rather than cite the boy for violating school policy, Pearson looks the other way and hopes to eventually find him a coat that follows campus policy. The school has a scholarship fund to help families meet the dress code rules.

"By and large we get amazing compliance from the kids," Pearson says. He adds that there are a lot of other avenues for self-expression than fashion; students can assert their individual natures through academics, sports, arts, clubs and more.

"We want our kids dressed four success. We want the focus on education and we want our campus to be safe. We have truly established an environment that provides safety and promotes learning. I truly believe that's what parents want."

Dave Palagi, president of the school's parent-faculty club, agrees wholeheartedly. "We're instilling in our kids that when you go into the corporate world, you have to dress appropriately, and school isn't any different," Palagi says. The dress policy does increase safety, he avers, by making it easy for yard supervisors overseeing 1,100 students during breaks and lunch to immediately spot a stranger on campus. "If I had my way, there'd be an even stricter dress code."

The rules already go too far, says Sharon O'Grady, one of the private attorneys representing the case. "The dress code goes well beyond the legitimate purposes of a dress code," she says, "which would be school safety, prevention of gang violence--things that are important to keep the school safe. No one has explained to me why stripes or patterns or having one color on the collar and a different color on the body of the shirt has anything to do with safety or gang violence."

The district has three other middle schools, none of which has a dress policy as strict as the one at Redwood. The families who filed the lawsuit say they shouldn't have to transfer away from their neighborhood campus to escape rules that exceed what the state allows.

T.K. worries that her permanent record will list disciplinary actions without explaining that they were for minor dress-code infractions. "It will show up that I was defying them. I don't want to go into high school with them thinking that I'm not a good kid."

Donnell Scott adds, "For them to say this is a dress-for-success policy, well, success starts after high school. Let me parent my own child. Let me make a decision. It's a public school. They can have the dress code; just provide me with an opt-out form."

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