Cracking the code: School board looks to tidy up repeated dress code violators

By Greg Gelpi

Members of the Clayton County Board of Education are pushing for a uniform dress code across the county. As it is, the school system has a dress code, but schools can amend the policy to suit each particular school.

More than half of the school system's dress code violations were reported at Mt. Zion High School last school year. The school had 545 students who violated the dress code 949 times.

"When I first came, (tucking my shirt in) really didn't make sense," said Howard Jackson, who is in his second year at the school. "Now that I've been here I'm used to it."

Jackson is so used to tucking his shirt in that his friends often have to remind him to untuck his shirt after school.

Tifani McLin, a Mt. Zion senior, said the rule requiring shirts to be tucked in is the hardest part of the dress code.

"Other than that, it's better than having to wear a uniform," McLin said, adding that teachers enforce the dress code, not allowing students to enter classes with shirts untucked.

She would wear tank-tops to school, though, if she was allowed, she said.

"That would be a plus in the summertime," McLin said.

Senior Joy Mike said most students follow the dress code, but others need constant reminding from teachers. The dress code could be more definitive, she added.

"I think some teachers have their own ideas for the dress code," Mike said. "They have their own idea of what is appropriate and what is not appropriate."

The dress code is more than just a tedious rule to keep students in line, Mt. Zion High School Principal Don Stout said. It's about teaching students to "dress for success" and making them safer.

"It's a battle every single day," Stout said. "We spend an inordinate amount of energy everyday."

The easiest place to hide a weapon is under an untucked shirt, he said.

"We know that they would be safer," Stout said. "We can't guarantee anything, but we can make them safer."

He said it would be easier to relax the dress code, but his conscience wouldn't allow him to do such a thing. It's his responsibility to take all appropriate measures to increase the safety of his students.

"I have no power to set board policy, but it certainly would help (to have a standard policy in place)," Stout said. "(Other principals) say ?I support you, but I'm not ready to fight that battle.' Every kid in compliance makes us safer."

In the 2003 - 2004 school year, the school system reported 1,244 students violated school dress code policy for a total of 1,776 incidents.

High schools had the most violations with 1,338 incidents, while middle schools had 420 incidents and elementary schools had 18.

A study commissioned by the Clayton County school system in August found county residents nearly split on the issue of school uniforms. Nearly 55 percent of those who responded to the survey expressed either an interest or a strong interest in uniforms.

Overwhelmingly, though, county residents want a "stricter" dress code, according to the survey. More than 79 percent agree or agree strongly that a stricter dress code is needed.

The issue of school uniforms was visited in 1996. At that time, the school board adopted a policy that allowed individual schools to voluntarily wear uniforms if they choose.

"In recognition of the potential for promoting student safety, boosting school spirit and reinforcing a positive learning environment, the Clayton County Board of Education endorses efforts of the district schools to initiate the voluntary wearing of school specified student uniforms," the policy states.

The school system adopted an administrative rule in 1989 setting forth guidelines for elementary, middle and high schools.

"There is a positive relationship between a neat, appropriate appearance and a good learning environment," the rule states along with a list of guidelines. "All students are encouraged to take pride in themselves and in their school work. To create the most optimal setting for students, the following guidelines for student dress are in effect. These guidelines center around common sense and good taste and reflect the concern of the Clayton County Board of Education for the best interest and welfare of our children."