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Pasco School Board to consider adopting state-mandated dress code penalties

HOLIDAY — Principal Chris Dunning has his ways of dealing with students at Paul R. Smith Middle School who wear their pants well below their waistlines.

He offers them zip ties to cinch their belt loops more tightly above their underwear. He has students call home to get a change of clothing.

"We actually have these giant bright green 'Out of Dress Code' shirts made up," Dunning said. "We give them these giant shirts to wear, and most of the time they would say, 'Instead of wearing that, I have something in my backpack.' "

Such interventions have solved most of the dress code problems at Smith Middle.

But now the Florida Legislature has required that school districts do even more to deal with the scourge of saggy pants.

While first infractions would yield just a warning, second violations would net a five-day ban from extracurricular activities, and further "indecent or vulgar" displays of underwear or body parts would net in-school suspension plus up to a month without extracurriculars. This became law in the spring, after the measure failed to make its way out of committee the last few years.

Up until this point, the Pasco School Board has given principals the freedom to choose dress code penalties. On Tuesday, the board will consider adopting the new state-mandated punishments for a violation that many say is not among their top concerns.

"The Legislature makes all kinds of decisions for us here at the local level that they probably don't need to make," said Pasco School Board member Cynthia Armstrong, who called the law an unfunded mandate. "I believe the school system and the School Board should have the flexibility to choose the penalties that they think are appropriate for the student body."

Jim Lane, principal of Centennial Middle School in Dade City, said he understands the irritation that many have with the kids who wear their pants slung low.

"It puzzles me why anyone would think it's attractive or cool to have your underwear hanging out, or your backside," Lane said.

But the trend seems to have abated lately, he continued, and the Legislature's heavy punishment is more aggressive than he would prefer.

"One can turn anything into a confrontation," Lane said. "What began as what you think is a mundane thing … can pretty quickly escalate into defiance. We try to avoid that."

For students involved in sports and other extracurricular programs, though, the threat of losing the right to participate can be enough to spur quick change, he acknowledged.

"Often, the coaches have a lot of sway over the kids. Very often all it takes is for the coach to say, 'If you don't get your act together, you aren't going to play,' " Lane said.

Plus, the law gives schools added leverage in dealing with the kids and parents who fight the rule, Dunning said: "It does give us something to say to a parent, that it's the law and not just a policy."

Still, both Lane and Dunning said saggy pants are hardly the biggest dress code concern they face.

"It's actually more of a girl issue," Dunning said. "Boys are hats, and a few kids who wear droopy pants. But the girls" — especially in the warmer months — "wear shirts that have, shall we say, too low exposure or too high midriffs."

Because many teens go through growth spurts, Lane noted, some outfits that were fine at the beginning of the year can be inappropriate a few months later.

Dealing with such situations can prove delicate, particularly for male school leaders and teachers.

"I have a female assistant principal or a female disciplinarian deal with those," Dunning said, adding that even his comments must be circumspect. "I will say, 'That outfit is inappropriate.' "

In the grand scheme of things, he said, the Pasco school district was already dealing with these matters. "There are much bigger issues, that's for sure."

The Pasco School Board is scheduled to take up the dress code changes on first reading on Tuesday. A second reading is required before final adoption.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook. A version of this story appears in some regional editions of the Times.

Pasco School Board to consider adopting state-mandated dress code penalties 07/20/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 20, 2011 10:02pm]
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