School dress codes, no matter where one falls on the pros and cons, may be singularly responsible for the introduction to the English language of a phrase seemingly hell-bent on perplexing the mind: "mid-thigh."
So last year, fed up with enforcing an ambiguity, several Pinellas high schools moved to a strict, uniformlike dress code of polos and long pants.
St. Petersburg High did not. Instead, administrators elected to step up enforcement of the existing county dress code, which bans strappy tops, sheer shirts and, yes, shorts and skirts that fall above mid-thigh.
How did that go?
Says Darlene Lebo, an assistant principal at St. Pete High: "We feel like it's starting to take a downward spiral."
• • •
Next school year, St. Petersburg High will adopt a dress code that requires students to wear either solid-colored polo shirts or shirts from school-sponsored clubs. Shorts must be knee length or longer. No dresses or skirts will be permitted.
While some details are still being finessed, Lebo says this switch to a "modified dress code" is definitely happening. Students continued to break the dress code this year, and teachers spent too much time trying to police it.
"Especially with the ladies' shorts, it's like where exactly do you draw the line? It says mid-thigh but what is too short, and what is too long, and you have different kids with different lengths of legs," she says. "You give them an inch and they kind of take a mile, so to speak."
St. Pete is following the example of Lakewood and Gibbs, which switched to a "modified dress code" this school year. They, in turn, were following Clearwater High School, the first in the area to adopt the stricter code, in the 2012-13 school year.
"It's easier to enforce, because if someone's out of code, they're going to be a lot more obvious," says Keith Mastorides, the principal at Clearwater. There, students may only wear polos in the school's colors or school-affiliated shirts, along with bottoms at the knee.
Students dressing more or less alike has also "provided a little bit of a calming effect on our campus," Mastorides says.
But if the cardinal sin of the teenage years is conformity, then St. Petersburg High students say administrators are flirting with Hades.
By Friday afternoon, more than 400 people identifying themselves as parents, students and alumni had signed an online petition titled "No School Uniforms at St. Pete High."
The petitioners mourned freedom of expression and bemoaned the cost of purchasing new, code-compliant clothes.
"My parents definitely don't want to go out and buy another wardrobe," sophomore Caroline Barnett said in an interview.
Tysen Singletary, another sophomore, said he owns polo shirts, but that's not the point. "I wear it because I can. I don't want to wear it because I have to," the 16-year-old explained.
Caitlin Maselli, also 16, said she was upset that the whole school would be punished for the actions of the violators.
"I was surprised that a school known for its diversity and tradition of acceptance of people from all kinds of backgrounds would make such a drastic change to try to conform the students."
• • •
Northeast High, just across town from St. Pete High, found itself at the same crossroads last year. Like St. Pete, the school decided to step up enforcement of the county dress code rather than move toward uniforms.
Unlike St. Pete, however, Northeast says it won't need to make any changes for next year because it solved the dress code problem.
To do that, principal Kevin Hendrick had to take on that squishy, strange phrase.
"We defined 'mid-thigh' as 3 inches above the knee. That's cut and dry, no ambiguity, and we said no holes, rips, tears, what have you, so none of this skin showing above the knee."
The school also instituted a daily dress code check during first period. Students in violation are issued special dress code passes to the media center, where all rule breakers are processed.
"The whole goal is to keep them in class and keep them in compliance," says the principal. Anecdotally, Hendrick says, he's seeing fewer violations and fewer cases where teachers lose class time writing up kids.
Meanwhile, at Clearwater, students in spirit gear and red and gray polos said the modified dress code isn't the death rattle their St. Pete peers think it will be.
"You have to stay in the dress code, but you can kind of rock it, put your own swag into it," says Nick Robinson, 18.
Allie Chandler, 18, agreed. "You're not judged as much," she says. And "it allowed people to talk to people they might not have before because of how they were dressed."
Kaitlin Moan, 17, acknowledges that the first day of school was a bit of a culture shock. Everyone looked the same. For a minute.
"I'm the accessorizer," Kaitlin says. "You can add necklaces, scarfs, headbands, and" — perhaps most important of all — "you can wear whatever shoes you want."
Times photographer John Pendygraft contributed to this report. Lisa Gartner can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @lisagartner.