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1,500 students protested school dress code Friday

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Despite a protest by 1,500 high school students over Clayton County Public Schools' uniform-dress policy, the county's school board chairperson vowed to not back down, and to keep the policy in tact.

The school system will continue an investigation into the protest after the Thanksgiving holiday, School System Spokesman Charles White said, but at this point, district officials know students from all nine Clayton County high schools participated in the action last Friday.

The district is categorizing the anti-uniform dress protest as "an organized effort among students" to "disrupt the daily routine" of the schools, according to a written statement from White.

The protest represents a visible challenge to the high school, uniform-dress policy, which was put in place over the summer. On Tuesday, Clayton County School Board Chairperson Alieka Anderson said the board would not be deterred by the protest.

"No, no, no, no, no," Anderson said. "We're there [in office] for improving student achievement, and uniform dress is part of that process ... We hope that when students are in school, they are focused not on what they wear, but on student achievement.

"We're still working on getting off probation [with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools], and our goal is to establish a standard of excellence in our schools," Anderson added. "We hope the students understand that we are in this together, and we have to work together, if we're going to be on top."

White said that text messages, which encouraged students to "buck the system," were sent to students on an unspecified date prior to the protest. He said the district has not determined the origins of the text messages.

He also said school-level administrators told students prior to Friday that, although it was only a half-day school day, with the high schools releasing students at 11:40 a.m., the same standards and expectations for a full school day would be in place. That included adhering to the district's uniform-dress policy, White said.

The district's spokesman said although all of the students were disciplined, the types of punishments issued varied "school-to-school." He said all of the discipline was in accordance with the district's student handbook, however, which means it could have ranged from "time out" to detention, to loss of privileges, to in-school suspension, to parent conferences.

The school system has not completed an investigation into the incident because of the difficulties of reaching people over the Thanksgiving holiday, according to White.

"Based on an incomplete survey of schools, the district has determined that more than 1,500 students arrived at school on Friday in non-appropriate dress," he said in the district's written statement. "In several cases, this was in direct defiance of school-level administrative instructions to students advising them to be in uniform dress, or face consequences for their actions."

Clayton County Public Schools Superintendent Edmond Heatley said the students were not punished for being out of uniform dress, but for "failure to follow instructions and disrupting the school.

"Students who participated in this deliberate attempt to interrupt the school routine made a bad choice on Friday, and need to be held responsible for that decision," he said.

The uniform-dress policy has been controversial since it was first proposed. Prior to this summer, the district had a long-standing standard of not moving forward with uniform dress at any school without 80 percent of parents expressing support through a survey. But the policy was approved even though only 65.9 percent of the parents responding to the survey said they wanted it.

Area Assistant Superintendent Derrick Manning said at the time that, "We feel like that [65.9 percent approval] was an indicator that the community was in support of us moving forward with this." School board members approved the policy by a 6-2 vote.

The policy has inspired a student group on Facebook, called "Clayton County High School students against required uniforms," in which students have posted messages, such as "UNIFORMS SUX" and several profanity-laden posts. The group's description says it exists to promote an ongoing "protest against the counties [sic] new required uniforms for all high school students."

The group has 782 members, according to Facebook. Posts on the group's wall date as far back as July 15. One student said several students at his school participated in the protest on Friday, and encouraged other high school students across the county to do the same throughout the foreseeable future.

"They can't suspend you all, and you will be making a stand for yourself," he wrote.