Flag flack raised again; school dress code policy and freedom of speech at issue

Warren County News
By Luci Weldon, Assistant Editor

The Warren County Board of Education will take another look at the school system’s student dress code policy, trying to clarify the guidelines of what is considered appropriate to wear to school.

"Ultimately what we want to do is to have some very, very clear rules and some statements about expectations and about behaviors as it relates to what students wear," Dr. Ray V. Spain, superintendent said at the board’s Monday night meeting.

The policy will be review as part of the process of reviewing the student handbook policy.

At the board’s March meeting, Warren County Middle School (WCMS) parent Mary Somerville of Ridgeway appeared before the board to state that her daughter was offended when students wore clothing showing the Confederate flag to school.

Somerville said that the dress code policy should be better enforced, and requested that clothes showing the Confederate flag be banned.

At Monday’s meeting, Somerville said that portions of the student dress code policy are not clear.

"If the policy is such a gray area that I can’t interpret it, how do you expect the kids to interpret it?" she said. "The Confederate flag is not the issue. The issue is that, in my opinion and according to my child, you are not abiding by your own policy."

The school system’s dress code policy, which was adopted in 1996, points out that if students’ clothing "constitutes a threat to health or safety," the student and his/her parent or guardian will be asked "to take appropriate action to remedy the situation."

If the student’s dress or appearance "is so unusual, inappropriate or lacking in cleanliness" that it is considered to be disruptive, the student could be required to change clothes.

The policy explains that principals "will maintain guidelines" of what students are allowed to wear to school.

An administrative regulation to the dress code policy, adopted in July of last year, lists clothing considered "offensive to others" among what could be considered disruptive.

The administrative regulation guidelines state that students’ clothing "shall not display messages or illustrations that are indecent, vulgar or advertise products or services that are not permitted by law to minors."

First to speak during the public comments portion of Monday’s meeting was Craig Allen of Littleton, also a WCMS parent, who said that his daughter had been singled out for wearing a Dixie Outfitters shirt showing a German shepherd to school.

Allen told board members that the context in which the flag is displayed should be considered.

"Before you single out one article of clothing, I think you need to look at the whole comprehensive dress code as it states now," he said, noting other styles of clothing which could be considered inappropriate for school.

In addition to incorporating an image of the Confederate flag in its logo, Dixie Outfitters produces a number of T-shirts and other clothing items bearing the image of the flag.

Warrenton resident Eric Alston later noted that he has never known the Confederate or Klan flag to be associated with anything other than hatred, "murder and lynching."

"I do not understand how you can say that it is not going to be offensive to a child," he added.

In responding to dress code policy concerns, Board Attorney Al Thompson said that the board of education has the authority to reconsider the dress code policy.

"I think that the current board policy on dress code accurately and appropriately affects the state of the law on this issue," Thompson said. "It (the policy) is modeled after the dress codes of many school systems throughout the state."

However, he noted, that the display of any flag, including the Confederate flag "is a separate issue" which falls under the category of freedom of speech.

Following Spain’s comments on revisiting the dress code policy, Roberta Scott, board chairperson called for a productive, positive conclusion to the 2003-04 school year, especially with the approach of exam time.

"Give the board a chance to really come together and meet and work this out, then hopefully we can come up with something that will be acceptable to each one," Scott said. "There is not a school board member here, nor a superintendent here, nor anyone here that does not care about Warren County."

© 2004, Womack Publishing

Link: http://www.vancnews.com/articles/2004/04/21/warrenton/news/news02.txt