1. The Education Gradebook

Schools' neon punishment for dress code violations upsets some Pasco parents

Published Sep. 26, 2013

NEW PORT RICHEY — Fashion don't. Shame shirt. Modern-day dunce cap.

Students at some Pasco County schools who have shown up in too-short shorts or sleeveless shirts have found themselves forced to wear neon "Out of Dress Code" T-shirts designed to compel compliance with the rules.

Some parents are not amused.

"Kids in middle school are at that point where they are building their confidence," said Scott Freitas, whose seventh-grade daughter Caitlin was confronted with the T-shirt at Seven Springs Middle School. "To make them wear something like that to embarrass them is just so wrong."

The concerns were not limited to Seven Springs Middle.

Amber Jandro thought so little of the practice that, after her daughter was presented the shirt at Paul R. Smith Middle, Jandro shot off a sharp email to superintendent Kurt Browning.

"This shirt is a form of bullying and is not acceptable," Jandro wrote to Browning, asking that the stock be destroyed. She said her daughter was laughed at and wound up in tears.

"There should be repercussions" for dress code violations, Jandro said in an interview. "There should just be proper repercussions."

She didn't get a response. But she did get action.

Browning forwarded Jandro's email to head of guidance counseling Molly Blair with a simple but pointed note.

"I think the practice of the T-shirt is not conducive to furthering our efforts to curb bullying," the superintendent wrote. "Thoughts???"

Blair agreed and added that she would follow up with all schools to make sure the "fashion don't" wasn't widespread.

Days later, Browning announced that he would put an end to the T-shirts. Schools should call parents to bring other clothes, he said, or alternately, provide apparel that doesn't make children stand out.

He stopped short of calling the T-shirts "bullying."

"He did think it did not reflect the culture of caring that we have been promoting this year," spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said.

Smith Middle principal Margie Fackelman, who inherited the T-shirt system when she took over last year, said she had planned to get rid of them regardless.

She had a stack of about 150 in her office, having collected them from administrators and teachers who had over time begun issuing them on their own.

"My philosophy is, we don't want to call attention to the mistakes that kids are making," said Fackelman, who received a few complaints. "If we want our kids to take pride in our school, we want them to make good choices. Part of that is not ostracizing them for poor choices."

The school has been collecting other replacement clothing that meets district rules for students to wear if they're out of compliance.

The neon T-shirts are likely on their way to the art room to become smocks.

• • •

Returning students to class without dealing with dress code violations is not viable, though, said Seven Springs Middle principal Chris Dunning, who ran Smith Middle until the spring.

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"The rationale behind it is, if they go into the classroom out of code and the other kids see them, the next day we have multiple offenses. It's a domino effect," Dunning said, noting that only three to five students of nearly 1,400 end up in the T-shirt. "We have a rule on dress code. If we have a rule, we have to enforce it."

Dunning added that students also have two other options: changing into something that meets code, or going to in-school suspension, where they could do their work without being in the main school population.

Will Benninghoff, whose daughter Taylor is a Seven Springs Middle eighth-grader, called those false choices.

He said he couldn't get off work to bring a different outfit, and letting students sit out of class meant missing valuable instruction time. That left only the T-shirt, which he rejected.

"I support the school, but, come on, guys," he said. "Really, is that what you want to do? Humiliate a kid?"

He suggested the schools consider adopting uniforms instead.

Dunning agreed uniforms might make things easier for everyone. He said he had already begun exploring that option with district officials, to see if he could take it to the next step of a community survey.

There is another easy answer, too, though, he added: "It would be nice if they would just follow the rules."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at jsolochek@tampabay.com.


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