School Superintendent Barbara Malkas reviewed the legal reasoning behind the district's dress code.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — School Committee member Mark Moulton says he's been approached by nearly two dozen citizens critical about cellphone use and attire of students at Drury High School.
"People have a perception of Drury ... Drury is doing great. My two daughters went there and got an excellent education," he said. "I don't have a problem with the educational process there, I have a problem with some of these things we're too lax on."
Moulton, who is ending his service on the committee this year, asked that both policies be put on the agenda for discussion after visiting Drury. He added he was a "little embarrassed" for not picking up on these issues, particularly the dress code, eight years ago. He called for a more stringent policy than just leaving the appropriateness of an outfit to students and parents.
The school district generally bans the use of electronic devices during school hours, but high school students may quietly use them in the hallways or cafeteria, and, if approved by their teacher, in the classroom.
"The responsibility for the dress and appearance of the students will rest with individual students and parents," according to the Drury student handbook, as long as such dress is not disruptive and abides by health and safety regulations.
"We have to set our standards, we have to be responsible for what goes on in that school," Moulton said, adding there were students — that he didn't see but was told about — wearing midriff shirts and baggy pants with underwear showing. "That doesn't conduct well at all for a learning environment."
He did, however, see students wearing hats every which way and hoodies in classrooms, and listening to phones with earbuds in.
"What are they listening to? Do they have their hoodie on while they're talking their test? Are they listening to their test?" he asked.
He gave his statements at an unusually crowded School Committee meeting on Tuesday that he said included concerned parents and teachers. Also at the meeting were the two mayoral candidates Thomas Bernard and Moulton's brother, Robert Moulton Jr.
"I think a lot of them came because of what's going on here," Moulton said. He said he's been approached by community members, unsolicited, and felt it was his duty as an elected official to raise these issues.
"I understand the School Council can change and make their own policies but I think there's got be some communication with the School Committee when they do something like that that we don't get blindsided out in the public, which I felt I did with a dozen, maybe two dozen people," he said.
Superintendent Barbara Malkas said both committee policy and each school's student handbook, which is informed by their respective School Council, are both legal documents. The student handbooks are "allowed through state regulations to be developed in the best interest of the district's students," she said.
The policy on attire is vague, Malkas said, "because it has been highly litigated" and follows the state law.
The foundation law is Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, in which the U.S. Supreme Court in 1969 ruled on behalf of the Tinker family, whose three children were sent home for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. Freedom of speech and expression do not stop at the schoolhouse doors, the court ruled.
Moulton said he'd found few lawsuits but committee member Tara Jacobs said issues about dress codes can also become viral on social media. Frequently, such incidents are about shaming girls for wearing skirts or dresses deemed too short, or spaghetti straps or tank tops.
"The girls that get sent home are objectified because a teacher decided their spaghetti straps show too much shoulder or midriff," Jacobs said. "The boys can't study and the girls' education isn't as important. ...
"To inject something into our school district that could then set us up to be the next ScaryMommy[.com] story is a frightening idea to to me."
Vice Chairman Heather Boulger queried if it was really an issue and wanted to hear from teachers. She liked that the high school code was different than the elementary schools.
"High school students need to be responsible for themselves and to able to make those adjustments," she said. "I think I need more information from the people with the students because I didn't hear any complaints."
Committee member Nicholas Fahey said as long the students were learning and demonstrating growth, "I don't care if they do it in a tube top or a hoodie."
Malkas said there is some room for setting certain standards, but when teachers and administrators start passing judgment on styles and fashion, they run the risk of being culturally discriminatory.
"We have to be mindful of the parameters by which we might begin the creation of a more stringent dress code," she said. However, the superintendent noted that changes in language or interpretation in handbooks should be reviewed by the committee so they are not caught offguard.
Principal Timothy Callahan expressed confusion as to why these issues were now controversial. The cellphone language had changed somewhat but the dress code was exactly the same as the committee policy, he said.
"I'm used to enforcing the hat policy. For 19 years of my life, I told kids to take their hats off," he said. "It's not because I didn't want to do it anymore that I stopped. We had very specific reasons to do it — to increase student engagement in learning. Since we've adopted the policy this year, again based on School Council recommendations, we've seen results."
Drury has 100 more students in the building with the addition of seventh grade, but far fewer discipline problems. Last September, there were 48 class cuts, but this year, only 14.
"That's a drastic drop," Callahan said. "And some of those differences are because we have a more welcoming and inviting atmosphere. ...
"Maybe people object to what we've done but the results are the results."
Moulton, however, asked what was too far? Could girls come in bikinis and boys with shirts?
"Vague is no standard ... It's part of what's going on with society," he said. "We're going to be back here with a lawsuit because something's going to happen in school."
Moulton said he hoped to be involved in the review of both policies, even if he wasn't on the committee.
"I think what we should focus on is the results, not us being a moral compass or saying this is what's appropriate for a woman or a man to wear," said committee member Karen Bond. "And that's my two cents."
Chairman Mayor Richard Alcombright reminded School Committee members wishing to visit the schools that they should contact the superintendent, who will make accommodations through the principal. Such visits should be of informal interest only and not "inspections or visits for supervisory administrative purposes."
In other business, the committee heard the update on the recommendations of the Berkshire County Education Task Force released during the summer; reviewed the goal setting for the superintendent; and approved a new Wellness Policy Revision.
The wellness policy has been updated over the past year by a subcommittee lead by Food Service Director Corbett Nicholas. The new policy sets recess as a right (with modification for the high school), removes the use of outside food for celebrations and sets a once-a-month in-school birthday celebration, and discourages the use of food or beverage as rewards.
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