LAND O'LAKES — The fight over the appropriateness of a fourth-grader's backpack last week has prompted one new Pasco County School Board member to call for a review of the policy that led to the pack's removal.
But Alison Crumbley isn't looking for rules to make the bag with an illustration of a scantily clad woman and a large snake — or any similar artwork, for that matter — any easier to carry to class.
"To me, it is just so clear you shouldn't be bringing something like that to an elementary school," Crumbley said. "I think we can take a more clear approach and define it more clearly."
The policy in question states that students should wear "modest clothing" that is "consistent with community standards as determined by the school principal." It offers some guidance that designs, decorations and symbols that are "offensive to good taste or the maintenance of decorum" are not allowed.
And it leaves the final decision to each school principal.
The question at hand is whether those broad terms offer enough direction for students and parents to follow. Fred Ferrer, whose son Quentin sported the banned backpack at Richey Elementary School, contended the policy needed specific details.
Crumbley agreed that, as Ferrer demonstrated, there might be too much room left for interpretation, which could lead to lawsuits. She planned to bring up the topic after she gets sworn in.
Other board members signaled they would be open to conversation. But they didn't see any pressing need to rewrite the rules absent some compelling argument.
The board gives principals "great responsibility, and with that it is appropriate to give them authority," board chairman Allen Altman said.
The superintendent always can intervene if necessary, board vice chairwoman Joanne Hurley added.
"If there were an instance where the superintendent disagreed with the principal, you know the superintendent would voice that," Hurley said.
In this particular instance, though, neither superintendent Heather Fiorentino nor the board disputed principal Ken Miesner's decision to keep the boy's backpack in the school office. That's despite the fact that he had used it for two years before anyone complained.
"It's important that whatever is at school not be disruptive to the education process," said newly elected board member Cynthia Armstrong, a former teacher. "Something that may not have been disruptive can become disruptive."
She hesitated to support any policy change that becomes too pointed or that takes discretion away from the principal.
"We have too many issues already where you have a no tolerance level. That makes it too difficult to make exceptions," Armstrong said.
Only recently did state lawmakers ease their "zero tolerance" policy on weapons, giving schools more leeway to impose lesser penalties on students who did such things as accidentally carrying a toy plastic gun to class. Similar flexibility should be available to a school administrator in dealing with kids' clothing and apparel, Armstrong suggested.
School Board lawyer Dennis Alfonso noted that trying to identify specific items that are not allowed could cause problems if someone wears something that causes objections yet doesn't appear on the list.
"When you laundry list things, I don't care how well-intended you are, I don't care how good your lawyer is, there's always going to be something that isn't on the list," Alfonso said.
One possible solution might be a move to uniforms or a dress code that strictly sets limits on what children may wear or carry to school. Even that move could lead to similar challenges, though, as kids and parents might question the use of patches, temporary tattoos or any other loopholes.
When School Board member Kathryn Starkey brought up that idea, though, she found no support. Crumbley, who replaces Starkey, does not intend to go there.
She said she only wants to see if there's a way to beef up the board's dress and apparel policy in order to avoid gray areas that lead to challenges. After all, Crumbley said, the board has more important matters to deal with as it moves ahead.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.