Mashpee School Committee Rejects Proposals For Quashnet, MMS Uniforms
By: Elsa H. Partan
The Mashpee School Committee killed the idea of a uniform dress code at its meeting Wednesday night, saying that the change is on shaky legal ground.
Committee members said they will support changes to the current dress code to help Mashpee principals rein in inappropriate clothing, which the principals have said has become an increasingly time-consuming problem.
The idea of a uniform dress code was first raised during the 2010-2011 school year by the Quashnet School Council. Students would wear solid-color polo shirts with no logos and solid-color slacks, shorts, or skirts. Denim and flip-flops would be forbidden. Parents could opt out of the dress code if they wished.
Anecdotal evidence from other schools shows that the school climate is improved because students perceive that they fit in better and the uniforms promote a down-to-business atmosphere, according to materials provided by Quashnet School Principal Patricia M. DeBoer.
Ms. DeBoer conducted surveys in the spring and fall last year to gauge support from parents. On Tuesday, she held a forum to gather more opinions. Nearly 60 parents crowded into the school library, mostly to say they opposed the idea because it would restrict their children’s creativity, be less comfortable, and create a hassle to find the right clothes, they said.
The standing-room-only audience represented a rare turnout for parents, who have not attended other recent school meetings in large numbers. For example, a workshop last week at Mashpee Middle School on improving children’s test scores drew only six parents.
Ms. DeBoer planned to take a vote of parents of children in grades 2 to 5 this month but abandoned that effort after members of the school committee on Wednesday said they had serious questions about the uniform idea.
Mashpee Middle School Principal Sheila A. Arnold had planned a parents’ meeting this coming Wednesday, at 6 PM, to discuss the possibility of the same dress code at her school. She has since changed the purpose of the meeting to a discussion of dress code revisions.
Both principals said they would have required the approval of 90 percent of parents to move forward with the uniform dress code.
Chairman Kathy G. Stanley explained her opposition by saying that Massachusetts law does not allow public schools to enforce uniforms, citing information provided by the office of State Representative David T. Vieira (R-Falmouth).
The law, which is found in Chapter 71, Section 83, states, “School officials shall not abridge the rights of students as to personal dress and appearance except if such officials determine that such personal dress and appearance violate reasonable standards of health, safety, and cleanliness.”
An exception is carved out for a new category of public schools state legislators created in January 2010, called Innovation Schools, which operate with “greater autonomy and flexibility with regard to curriculum, staffing, budget, schedule/calendar, professional development, and district policies,” according to the state Executive Office of Education website. The Lawrence School in Falmouth instituted a uniform dress code last year when it became an Innovation School under the law.
Ms. Stanley said instituting a uniform dress code in Mashpee would be an invitation for lawsuits.
“I don’t disagree with all the things about the difficulties of appropriate dress,” Ms. Stanley said. “I just don’t know where we are going,”
Committee member Jose L. Franco had first raised the concern about the legality of uniforms at Tuesday’s parents’ meeting. Ms. Arnold countered that allowing parents to opt out would protect the school from challenges.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Ms. DeBoer reiterated that other Massachusetts schools have successfully implemented a uniform dress code by providing an “opt out.”
Ms. Arnold leaned toward the microphone and asked, “Would the school committee like us to stop this process and drastically revise our dress code?”
“I think it is a place to start,” Ms. Stanley said.
“No jeans with holes,” Ms. Arnold said.
School committee member David P. Bloomfield said he wants to respect the professional opinions of the principals and give them the tools they need to solve the problem.
“I think it’s important that they don’t spend time on something that is not academically oriented,” he said.
In earlier meetings, Ms. DeBoer, Ms. Arnold and Mashpee High School Principal Jane A. Day said teachers and administrators spend precious time dealing with skirts that are too short, shirts that are too revealing, flip-flops, pajamas, and inappropriate messages on T-shirts.
Many of the parents who attended Tuesday’s hearing said their children do not wear inappropriate clothing and should be allowed to pick out their own styles.
“I know I make a lot of mistakes in my parenting, but dressing my kids is not one of them,” said Paulina M. Reilly, the mother of a 3rd grader and a 7th grader.
The fact that sweatshirts and polo shirts must be free of logos would mean that many hand-me-downs would not work, she said. “I can’t use a hand-me-down sweatshirt because it has a Nike swoosh,” she said.
Raina L. Pinhack said her daughter expresses her individuality by choosing her own clothes, all of which are appropriate for school.
“I would hate to take that away from her,” she said. While her daughter enjoys picking out her clothes, her son prefers to wear exercise pants every day. “I don’t even make him dress up for the holidays,” she said. “He is a good kid dressed the way he is. The kids need to be individuals and be who they are.”
Two prior parent surveys indicate that more parents support the idea than were willing to speak up. In a paper survey in spring of 2011, 75 percent of the 251 respondents answered “yes” or “possibly” to the question, “Do you think the Quashnet School should consider school uniforms (solid-colored polo shirt with khaki pants/shorts, all reasonably priced)?” Quashnet School has 557 students in grades 3 to 6. An Internet survey at the end of November 2011 only received around 100 parent responses, but the outcome was similar. About two-thirds of the parents expressed support for a uniform dress.
Ms. Reilly was one of several parents who suggested that the current dress code could be enforced fully or revised to be more specific.
The 2011-2012 Quashnet student handbook states that student apparel must not “detract from learning, i.e., no alcohol, drugs or other inappropriate language or symbols are allowed.” It requires “appropriate” footwear and forbids sunglasses, pajamas, tank tops, exposed midriffs, and shorts and skirts that are “short.”
“Student dress, including total appearance, is expected to be within reasonable limits,” the handbook states. “This includes distracting hair color, excessive make-up, and strong colognes and perfumes.”
School committee members said Wednesday they will support the principals in their effort to crack down on inappropriate clothing.
“We will stop the process and look at the dress code,” Mr. Franco said.
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