Pinellas school officials want principals to use a disruption test when judging questionable clothes.
By MONIQUE FIELDS, Times Staff Writer
Published May 13, 2004

LARGO – After conflicts earlier this year over student displays of the Confederate flag, the Pinellas School Board agreed Wednesday to strengthen its dress code policy to help principals determine when they should take action.

The change, which still must be formally approved by the board, says principals should act whenever student clothing is disrupting teaching and learning. The current policy leaves such decisions up to a principal’s discretion.

"It will help them make decisions better," said board member Mary Brown, who called for stronger language in the policy.

The discussion, which came during a workshop, included no suggestion that the school district should ban displays of the Confederate flag or other racially sensitive symbols.

School Board attorney John Bowen told board members they must balance the offensive nature of some symbols against the First Amendment rights of students who want to display them.

"Thirty-five years ago, I would have said ban any kind of insignia, the flag, ban it," said veteran School Board member Lee Benjamin. "Today, I think we have progressed – not perfectly – but we have certainly had progress."

The district’s policy toward divisive symbols came under scrutiny in January after Krista Abram was suspended from Tarpon Springs High School for distributing a petition to ban the Confederate flag from campus.

Abram said Wednesday the School Board’s actions were "a step in the right direction," but little more.

"It’s kind of along the lines of what’s already in place," said Abram, 17. The policy changes sounded vague and "very circumstantial" to her. She still hopes that schools ban the flag, which she says stands for racism.

Others say the flag symbolizes southern heritage.

But the flag isn’t the only source of contention. Sometimes, even a single word is enough.

On Monday, a student showed up at Northeast High School wearing a T-shirt in memory of Marquell McCullough, a 17-year-old black youth fatally shot May 2 by Pinellas Sheriff’s detectives. Principal Michael Miller asked the student to either turn the shirt inside out or put a jacket over it because the word "revenge" was printed on the back.

The student complied, Miller said. But members of the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement demonstrated on the sidewalk in front of the school Tuesday, urging students not to let their principal "dictate" what they can wear. The demonstration caused students to speculate about what is in the dress code and what isn’t.

To Miller, the answer is clear.

"Anything that distracts from the learning environment, we’re going to deal with," he said. "We’re sensitive to all these community issues, but if it’s going to disrupt the education process, we’re going to react to it."

In a related matter, the board proposed giving a greater role to multicultural advisory committees in schools. The committees, composed of at least 10 students and three adults, would make recommendations to principals should problems arise.

Some principals say they already have enough authority to deal with problems posed by controversial displays or clothing.

"In the code as it was, the administration was the final judge of appropriate clothing in school," said Largo High School principal Barbara Thornton, who has been at the school for 14 years. "I don’t see this as any different."

Thornton said she brings a handful of T-shirts to school in case she feels a student has violated the dress code. Some students wear rebel flag T-shirts, but in Largo, no one has taken offense.

"Kids do the rebel flags, but no one seems to pay any attention," she said. "And it’s never been brought up to me. If it was, we’d address it. Just like we always have."

– Times staff writers Aaron Sharockman, Richard Danielson and Donna Winchester contributed to this report.