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School Board schedules debate on culottes

In a few weeks, School Board members may decide when a girl's culottes, which are allowed to be worn to school, really are long shorts, which are forbidden. Or whether it matters at all. But if informal school surveys carry much weight, then girls and boys in middle schools and high schools will be showing more of their legs.

"The general school sentiment from parents and kids was let's have garb no shorter than 3 inches above the knee," said Nancy Zambito, school operations director for North Pinellas. All middle schools and high schools were to poll parents about the issue in September.

Since then, the school system's Code of Student Conduct Revision Committee has agreed with a proposal to limit the length of all garments _ skirts, shorts and culottes _ to no shorter than 3 inches above the knee, she said.

But School Superintendent Howard Hinesley hasn't decided what to recommend to School Board members, who are expected to consider the matter Nov. 14.

Pinellas Park High junior Kyle Thornton has no doubts about it: "Most students would like to wear shorts."

Obliging that desire might be easy this year, when longer shorts are in style, but School Board Chairman Barbara Crockett wonders what could happen if the dress code is revised and short-shorts become fashionable.

"If we're going to be changing policy according to fashion designs then that's going to be very difficult to do," Crockett said.

Also, relaxing the dress code would kill some incentive programs under which students can wear shorts to school if they meet criteria such as good grades and good attendance, she said.

"I would assume if we decide that shorts will be a countywide policy, that the schools wanting the incentive programs will probably come up with something equally as creative to give the students to encourage them to get good grades and come to school," Crockett said.

The incentive programs, pioneered by Largo High School in 1989, are partly to blame for the current controversy. As the School Board approved the programs, some people began wondering why, if shorts were appropriate for some students, they weren't appropriate for all. Elementary school pupils can wear shorts.

In June, the School Board voted to ban miniskirts, allow culottes and continue the shorts ban. This left principals trying to distinguish between shorts and culottes.

The dress code defines a culotte as a divided skirt that, when the wearer stands with knees together, looks like a skirt. The garment can be no more than 3 inches above the knee.

During the first three days of school, Pinellas officials yanked about 65 students out of class for wearing what the system considers shorts. Many of the students, who could not return to class until they changed, insisted they were were wearing culottes.

Principals became so confused that they held a countywide meeting about culottes and shorts, but they failed to clarify the matter.

When it became clear the School Board would reconsider that part of the dress code, principals eased up on shorts-culottes enforcement, said Bruce Baptist, principal of East Lake High School and president of the county High School Principals Association.

"Everybody's just kind of on hold, waiting to see what happens," he said. "It hasn't been that much of a problem at all, but it'll still be good to get it resolved."