Pinellas school officials appear to be backing off mandatory uniforms, but say they still plan to crack down on questionable school fashion.
A month after superintendent Julie Janssen proposed uniforms for all elementary and middle school students — and a majority of the Pinellas County School Board indicated support for the idea — they directed Janssen to craft a more flexible policy.
And one that should also cover high school students, not just those in K-8 as initially proposed.
"Our biggest problem with dress is with our high school students," said board chairwoman Janet Clark.
During a brief discussion at a workshop last week, board members didn't seem to really want a uniform policy, or at least not one that many students and parents envision when they think of uniforms (khaki pants, polo shirts).
Instead, they called for a modified dress code — one that says what students must wear (collared shirt with sleeves, belts for pants with loops) as opposed to one that says what they can't (baggy pants, spaghetti straps).
"Just call it a simplified dress code that will be enforced," said board member Linda Lerner, who called uniforms "window dressing" when they were proposed.
In remarks before the board weighed in, Janssen also suggested a less stringent policy. "Simplicity is key" to a workable policy, she said. "Simply state what's expected."
For example, "collars and sleeves … not anything more detailed than that," Janssen said. Even that, though, she suggested, would send a message "that education is the most important piece in these children's lives."
The superintendent called for mandated uniforms in K-8 beginning in 2011-12 as part of a sweeping proposal to boost student achievement, saying it would set a good tone for students and eliminate distractions.
The district used an Osceola County policy as a starting point that prescribes long or short-sleeved, navy blue or white collared shirts for all students, with long pants or walking shorts for boys and walking shorts, slacks or skorts for girls.
Some board members said then that such a policy would keep teachers and principals from having to serve as the fashion police. Others said it would take away some of the distinctions between rich kids and poor kids.
But at last week's workshop, board members continued to raise concerns about cost to families — and to school advisory councils that would have to find and potentially pay for appropriate clothing for needy students.
"That's a heavy burden we've added to them," said board member Robin Wikle, who also asked for data about the 23 Pinellas schools that already mandate uniforms.
And vice chairwoman Carol Cook said a modified dress code would achieve the same result the district is seeking.
"Right from the beginning we were looking for a way to have the children and young adults dress a little more appropriately for school," she said. "Kind of step it up a little bit."
Shelli Katz said she appreciates the flexibility the board is seeking, but said the debate would be unnecessary if the district simple backed what's already on the books.
"I'm fine with shorts with certain lengths. I'm fine with no tank tops. No black lipstick, that's okay," said Katz, who has a child at Ridgecrest Elementary and another at Dunedin Highland Middle. But "I have a daughter who is very anti-collar. If I have to tell her that she has to wear a collar every day next year, she's not going to be happy about that."
"The fact that they're trying to make it broader would make it easier to deal with," Katz said. "But I wonder if enforcing the dress code right now would solve the problem."
Several board members also stressed enforcement. Whatever the district comes up with, they said, it needs to be monitored better than the current dress code policy. If not, said board member Mary Brown, "it's the same old, same old."
John Hauser, a parent who initially opposed uniforms, said what the board is talking about now still seems misguided.
"What's wrong with T-shirts? We live in Florida," said Hauser, whose son is in the gifted program at Morgan Fitzgerald Middle. "The clothes don't make the behavior."