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North Adams Schools to Review Dress Codes

By Tammy DanielsiBerkshires Staff
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The Policy Subcommittee had a rare turnout of the public on Thursday, prompted by the agenda item on dress codes.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — School officials are hoping to update dress code regulations in the city's schools and will be looking for participation from stakeholders. 
The Policy Subcommittee on Thursday voted to recommend the establishment of an ad hoc committee to aid in making the regulations more consistent across the district. 
Superintendent Barbara Malkas said the rules had gradually differentiated as the school councils had been the ones to develop student handbooks, which are approved annually by the School Committee. Last fall, committee member Tara Jacobs had noted how different each handbook was and it was decided to wait until the new committee was seated to review them. 
Thursday's agenda had been widely shared on social media and eight members of the public attended the meeting and nearly all stood up to say they were there specifically because of the dress code conversation. While none of the audience expressed particular concerns, many of the comments on Facebook had related to the use of dress codes in discriminating against students and shaming girls. 
Jacobs has been outspoken in the need for more inclusive and less restrictive dress codes. 
"The social media responses to this have been very strong," said subcommittee Chairman Ian Bergeron. "I've received any number of emails ... and there's been so much interest in making a body positive policy. I think the interest is there."
The policy states that "the responsibility for the dress and appearance of the students will rest with individual students and parents. They have the right to determine how the student will dress providing that attire is not destructive to school property complies with requirements for health and safety and does not cause disorder or disruption." 
However, the administration may recommend appropriate dress for school or special occasions and may step in if the dress promotes illegal activity, discrimination or hate speech. Malkas, in answer to questions, said that might mean clothing with sayings that promote drug use or, in some schools, the banning of gang colors.  
The schools' attorney, Adam Dupre, she said, advised that policy language "should be very philosophical, that it should set the tone of the expectations for the district specifically around dress code. And that the regulations of what that would actually look like in practice should be determined separate from policy language."
So the dress code policy itself is very broad, somewhat ambiguous and similar to the template language of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. But the actual dress codes are much more specific and are different at each school. Malkas said they tended to focus on what is prohibited than what is allowed. 
"The language that I think was discussed on Facebook, that is very prohibitive," she said. "That, I think, people had issues with, that is language that is within the student handbooks. And that is language that is inconsistent across the district and so subject to interpretation."
The subcommittee was asked why it needed yet another committee to review the language since the those attending had expected discussion of the rules on Thursday. School officials said it was important to have the input of students, parents and staff in formulating regulations. 
"We need to get community involvement and stakeholders in each school and discuss how this plays out in real life, I guess would be the long and short of it," said committee member Karen Bond. 
Bergeron said that format had been used several years ago in developing the electronic use policy, which had turned out fairly successful.
Malkas noted that the School Committee has a student representative and that she would ask Drury High Principal Timothy Callahan for a couple names of students who might be interested in participating. 
"[The policy] reads as discrimination avoidance, it doesn't read as anything that informs," Bergeron said. "School handbooks are interpreted by the staff and we need to give them something more to work with, because this doesn't do it."
The superintendent believed she could have the names for a committee by March and invited those in attendance to leave their contact numbers if they wished to participate. 
In other busines, the subcommittee also voted to recommend to the full School Committee the separation of the district's homeless student policy into three separate policies for homelessness, military children and waiting foster children.
Thomas Simon,  director of student support services, said homelessness had been categorized as "lacking a fixed regular, adequate housing" that tentatively covered the transiency of each situation. 
But the 5-year-old federal Every Student Succeeds Act views the three statuses as distinct situations and the state has recommended that the district develop the new policies to come into compliance. Simon said the school district provides supportive practices in all three categories that will not change. 
"We actually act, North Adams, as the technical assistance provider for all of the districts in Western Mass," he said.

Tags: dress code,   NAPS,   

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Staff Reports
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