Rigid School Dress Code Leads to Suspension of Dozens in Indiana

More than 150 students have been suspended for wearing innocuous clothing.

August 26, 2009, 11:55 AM

Aug. 27, 2009— -- When 13-year-old Elijah Bell came home from school on his second day of eighth grade he gave his mother the pink warning slip he'd gotten for violating the school's dress code.

His outfit? Pants and a button-up, collared shirt. His violation? The shirt was plaid.

His 7-year-old sister Kayvonne Ferguson also got a pink slip the same day. Her offense was wearing houndstooth patterned pants.

The children's mother, Jacqueline Bell, is one of dozens of parents up in arms about the new dress code at Indiana's Richmond Community Schools, a public school district. The new rules are so draconian, some say, that more than 150 high school students -- about 10 percent of the student body -- were suspended the second day of class alone. Dozens more were suspended in the following days, some more than once.

Bell said she was shocked that her children were sent to school in what she considered respectable clothes only to find out that most everything in their wardrobe was now forbidden.

"It's good enough to wear to church, but you can't wear it to school," she told ABCNews.com. "It amazes me."

Richmond Community Schools Superintendent Allen Bourff told ABCNews.com that the new dress code was enforced steadfastly after a revision last year produced very little change in students' behavior with respect to their clothing.

"The changes were made because of the distractions in the classroom that the teachers had to deal with," he said.

Much of what's contained in the dress code is typical -- no profanity or clothes that expose breasts or behinds. But it's the new changes that sparked the ire of parents and students alike.

Among the banned articles of clothing are: logos, emblems and graphics; prints, such as flowers, stripes and plaids; shorts, skirts and dresses that are shorter than the children's middle fingers when their arms are at their sides; shirts that end above the waist or below the thigh, and anything but plain polo or crewneck shirts.

Clothes can also not be too baggy or overly tight.

Bourff said the problem wasn't those innocuous prints, such as stripes and flowers, but shirts that bore large graphics, sometimes with messages hidden underneath.

"We don't want students out of the classroom. That's not the point," he said. "We just don't want to have any issue with print at all. There are too many ... issues of trying to determine what's acceptable and what's not."

Online Petitions From Parents Upset About Dress Code

Bourff said he stands by the district's decision and noted that the number of suspensions has come down every day.

The Palladium-Item, Richmond's newspaper, reported that at least one student was suspended after wearing a plain, crew neck shirt because it exposed her collarbone.

Bell said it is frustrating that the school is so focused on clothes and feels bad not only for the parents but for the teachers who must spend the day inspecting their students for banned items.

Petitions on both sides of the argument have sprung up online. The petition against the new dress code bears 1,447 online signatures. Another in support of the dress code and/or school uniform has 54.

Most of the signers supporting the school district's dress code actually favored uniforms, but some were adamant that the dress code wasn't that hard to follow.

"I am all for the dress code," one poster, signed Sara Tyre, wrote. "I have six kids in school. I found clothes for them all that follow the code, and being on a tight income, then anyone should be able to."

Bourff said uniforms absolutely "would have been simpler."

But after numerous conferences and student surveys in the last year, "the message was very loud and clear," he said. "We don't want uniforms."

At this point, Bell said, she'd prefer a uniform, noting that she'd only have to buy one for now and wash it each night without anyone knowing the difference.

Bourff, now in his sixth year as superintendent, noted that the strict dress code does allow for some freedoms that uniforms don't. Students are allowed to pick the colors of their clothes, he said, and are allowed to wear clothing with logos advertising Richmond schools sports or activities.

New Dress Code Creates Financial Hardship for Some Parents

Bell said she was surprised to learn of the changes, especially because there had been a rewrite of the dress code in the second half of last year. That change, she said, simply barred T-shirts and clothing with logos with the exception of university or college.

That knocked out her daughter Kayvonne's penchant for Hannah Montana gear and Elijah's "Star Wars" shirts, but still left plenty of options in her closets. Those options are now gone, including anything with college logos.

Her children would often wear clothing they got for free or discount, T-shirts from her older children's colleges or shirts from the sporting store The Finish Line where one of her sons works. All are now out. Even plain khakis, she said, can be banned even for the simple logo tag on the back.

Bell, a divorced, single mother of seven children -- the oldest five are all in college -- said she simply cannot afford to buy brand new clothing for her two youngest children on her salary as a part-time employee at a community college.

Knowing her mother's desperation, Bell said one of her older daughters sent her part of a scholarship check for new clothes, money Bell will repay her daughter later this semester.

Bourff said the district understands some parents may have a hard time paying for an entire new wardrobe to accommodate the new dress code. Anyone in need of assistance, he said, was welcome to contact school principals who are authorized to give out new clothing that met the guidelines or direct parents to community resources.

The school district also expects a donation from the United Way to start a "clothes closet" where students can trade used items, he said.

Bell, who said she has worked very hard to make sure her children's education was not affected by their low-income status, said that instead of going over homework and last-minute school topics in the morning, she's checking her children's outfits so they don't get suspended.

"It's so in the way of everything," she said. "This is interfering with the education process."

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