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School policies vary on wearing uniforms

Hillsborough schools open today with 91 using mandatory or voluntary uniform policies. Parents' wishes are key.

Valerie Tinkey has sat on both sides of the fence in the debate over school uniforms.

At one time, she would have sided with the parents in Polk County who are threatening legal action against the School Board for mandating that students in kindergarten through eighth grade wear uniforms.

Valerie, 11, felt that way last August, when she entered the fifth grade at Valrico Elementary, where students were told, but not forced, to wear a certain style of clothes in mandated colors.

"I didn't really like it at first," Valerie said. "Actually, I didn't really like it at all, just because they were uniforms. Other kids thought that way, too."

Valerie now favors standardized dress, which is fortunate because she will be required to wear a certain set of clothes under Mann Middle School's mandatory uniform policy.

"Uniforms cut down on baggy, droopy shorts, where you can see somebody's boxers, and that's gross," Valerie said.

When the school year begins today in Hillsborough, 91 schools will have a voluntary or mandatory school uniform policy, up from 23 schools in the 1996-97 school year. Ten schools are new to the list this year.

Thirty-one of the district's 106 elementary schools have a voluntary policy, and 39 make it mandatory, including Valrico, which changed its stance after a favorable parent survey. In addition, 21 of the district's 34 middle schools have a uniform policy, and all but three mandate compliance, unless a parent opts out.

No high school has a uniform policy.

Unlike Polk County, the Hillsborough School Board has taken the stance that each school should decide whether uniforms are best.

That position stems from a survey two years ago, in which a vast majority of elementary school parents, and a smaller number of middle school parents, favored standardized dress, said Mark Hart, spokesman for Hillsborough County schools.

High school parents nixed the idea overwhelmingly, he added.

Schools with uniform policies keep them flexible. In general, schools will adopt a series of colors, such as navy, khaki and white, and require that children wear some combination on top and bottom. Usually required are polos or button-down shirts with collars. Bottoms are conservative shorts, pants or skirts.

Wilson Middle School does not have a uniform policy.

"I'd like uniforms, because I believe school is work," said Principal Jean Hamilton. "I believe children who dress like they're going to work approach their task differently than if they're dressed like they're going to play."

Still, Hamilton will not adopt a policy unless parents want one, and every year they vote against it.

The Wilson staff does, however, strictly enforce the School Board's dress code policy, which bans such things as loose and droopy trousers; platform, toeless or backless shoes; undergarments worn as outergarments; and too-short bottoms or overly revealing tops.

Also banned is attire considered disruptive.

"That rule was invoked last year on two occasions, when we had students wear black trench coats to school after the shootings at Columbine High School (in Littleton, Colo.)," Hart said. "In addition to being disrespectful to those who had died, it also was deemed as disruptive."

Rebecca McDaniel is the mother of five, including Valerie Tinkey. McDaniel said she favors Polk's move to a districtwide policy for several reasons: Enforcing a standardized dress code makes it easier and cheaper to shop. It makes for fewer arguments in the morning. It protects poorer children from ridicule, for not having the means to sport the latest fad. And it keeps the focus on learning, not style.

"School is about school; it shouldn't be about clothes," McDaniel said. "Children shouldn't have to be worried about what they wear to school every day. They should be worried about their math test."