Wednesday, July 18, 2018
Education

ACLU, parents back one student's protest over Ridgewood High's new dress code

NEW PORT RICHEY — A Pasco County student who was warned he could face legal trouble for encouraging a protest of his school's new dress code has gained support from some parents and the ACLU.

Hunter Banaciski called on his Ridgewood High School classmates a week ago to boycott the guidelines in a peaceful protest next Tuesday. He refused to back down in the face of threats from the administration that he might be arrested if the action gets out of hand.

"If it is just what he is saying, kids come to school out of dress code, he shouldn't face any consequences," district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said.

But his effort is growing with the aid of some parents, who contend the school administration did not fully vet the dress code with families before asking for School Board approval. They noted, for instance, that the board approved a hooded sweat shirt ban, yet the administration later authorized hoodies sold by the school.

The new code took effect Oct. 18.

"I am in disbelief that this dress code was approved," parent and Ridgewood alumna Marissa White wrote in an email to superintendent Kurt Browning. "From what I have heard, parents and students have not and do not support it, but because the administration pushed so hard regardless, here we are."

Board member Alison Crumbley, who represents the Ridgewood area, said Wednesday that she had received complaints that the rules were not being applied equally to all students, among other concerns. Initially uncomfortable with the proposal, Crumbley said she had backed the plan only after getting assurances that it had parent and student buy-in.

"They're bringing the protest to the School Board," Crumbley said, indicating she had new questions that need clear answers.

Parent Rodney Polansky is organizing that opposition. He suggested that teens wearing non-code blue T-shirts on campus won't generate as much action as having dozens of parents and students fill the board room demanding change.

"I feel these children need representation," said Polansky, who noted his son had been sent to in-school suspension three times for what he considered minor code violations.

His son was not, however, sent to the office when he wore a dress to school along with about 15 other boys, Polansky said. If the issue was to end distractions, as school officials told the board, Polansky wondered why boys' socks with Nike logos got more attention than boys in sparkly dresses.

Such inconsistencies, plus the threat of possible arrest for the protest, prompted a six-page letter to school and district leaders from Jennifer Morley, president of the ACLU Greater Tampa Bay. It warned them to tread lightly.

Students have well-established rights that don't end at the schoolhouse door, Morley advised. And a civil rights lawsuit can become an "expensive and often unnecessary means" for resolving disputes over the extent of a school's disciplinary powers, she added.

Morley said the planned in-school protest looked to be a "brilliant tactical move."

"It seems that students mean to prove their point by maneuvering the administration into a predicament wherein it must either: (1) disrupt its own activities by disciplining an impracticable number of students simultaneously (hence proving the students' point that enforcement of the policy is more disruptive to their educations than having a less-restrictive policy would be); or (2) declining to punish the students who violate the modified dress code, thereby implicitly conceding the students' point that enforcing the policy is more disruptive than disregarding it," she wrote.

Some parents have suggested they might picket outside the school before heading to the board meeting. Cobbe said district officials would hope for the best while preparing for the worst-case scenario.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at (813) 909-4614 or [email protected] Follow @jeffsolochek.

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