packers polo School dress codes limit distractions but can’t limit freedom of expression
Pennsylvania and New Jersey are among 22 states and the District of Columbia with laws permitting school uniform rules based on local school district preferences.
Officials in some of the districts without uniforms say they’re worth considering.
Too often students’ clothes serve as a distraction to learning, according to Easton Area School District Superintendent John Reinhart.
“Our focus should be on educating, learning and positive interactions with kids,” said Reinhart. “The imposition of school uniforms for everyone, I’d say even employees, would be a tremendous step in the right direction in just helping us maintain the best environment in schools for learning.”
Bethlehem Area School Board member Basilio A. Bonilla Jr. and former Nazareth Area School Board member Chris Miller both have made pitches for school uniforms or at least strict dress codes.
Miller said last week high schoolers need to learn now how to dress for the workforce, noting those who show up wearing denim to a job interview likely won’t get the job.
“When I taught school, I wore a suit, shirt and tie every day. So did all my colleagues,” said the former history teacher.
Districts that want to regulate clothes can’t do it at the expense of individual expression, according to Perry Zirkel, a Lehigh University education and law professor.
To avoid a free speech lawsuit, districts’ school dress code policies must be “content neutral,” meaning they don’t favor any particular viewpoint or message.
The Easton Area School District, for instance, lost in court after banning “I Heart Boobies” bracelets. The district called them offensive and inappropriate, but two girls wearing them said they indicated their support of breast cancer victims.
If uniforms are mandated, they need to be available at reasonable prices, Zirkel said.
This year in Allentown the district will allow more color options for sweaters and shoes. The longer the policy remains in place, the more students and families will adjust, Perez said.
“If we know that there is an issue as to why the student didn’t wear a uniform, maybe a home issue, we try to accommodate the student,” Perez said. “We have uniform banks with clothes students can borrow for the day if need be, and we communicate with the parents.”
Uniform violations did crop up last year. The biggest issues were wearing improper shoes, not wearing a belt or refusing to wear pants at the waist.
“When you enforce a new policy, there’s that uptick of incidents and infractions,” Perez said.
Bethlehem Area School District Superintendent Joseph Roy recalled a girl who frequently violated the dress code when he was a principal in a previous district.
“Finally, she brought in her wardrobe of skirts and tried them all on with my female assistant principal so she got the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on every outfit,” Roy recalled. “That’s pretty time consuming.”
The district’s dress code is standard across the district, and administrators do spend a fair amount of time enforcing it, he said.
Nazareth has no plans this school year to change its dress code, district Superintendent Dennis Riker said.
North Hunterdon Voorhees Regional High School doesn’t plan any changes either, according to spokeswoman Maren Smagala.
“We have not considered uniforms for students,” she said. “For the most part, students do abide by the dress code and we have not had requests from the community to consider uniforms.”