WESTFIELD, Mass. (The Westfield News) - The school year is only a few days old and already controversy is brewing on Montgomery Road after a morning where students were reprimanded for violations of the district’s dress code.
According to school board member Cindy Sullivan, high school administrators visited classrooms Friday to discuss the district’s dress code, which, according to her, has been on the books “for years” and hasn’t been enforced. The tension over the dress code reached a head early yesterday, when students, between 40 and 50 girls and one boy according to reports, were gathered in the school’s auditorium and parents were called to bring clothes for their children to change into.
“Fashion is changing, kids are pushing the boundaries, and the policy hasn’t been enforced,” said Sullivan, whose daughter attends South Middle School.
New Westfield High School Principal Jonathan Carter defended the enforcement of the dress code in a written statement, saying that it is in place for a reason. “Based on significant feedback from the faculty and staff, student dress needs to improve to reflect our focus on a positive school climate,” he said, before going on to say that one of the more contentious articles of clothing are yoga pants, form-fitting leggings worn by women for a variety of exercise activities, which have grown in popularity as casual wear.
“We need to support our students in finding the balance between freedom of expression and a school climate that does not create distraction or disruption,” he said.
While Carter clarified that the leggings are acceptable if worn with appropriate tops, his statement doesn’t hold much water with parent Donna Hoyt Erickson.
“Mr. Carter responded to me and clarified some of my concerns,” she said. “But the (dress code) is ambiguously worded, and needs to be worded in gender neutral language. To use the word ‘distracting’, that’s a real buzzword. It connotes sexism.”
Erickson, a mother of two whose older daughter graduated in 2011 and whose younger daughter still attends WHS, doesn’t blame Carter for enforcing the code.
“The school committee deserves the blame for putting forth a policy that wasn’t specifically worded,” she said.
Erickson said she agrees that some forms of dress are too casual for a public institution of learning, and listed “booty” shorts, spaghetti strap tops, hats, intentionally visible undergarments, and shirts with vulgar or hateful messages on them as being “too casual”. All of are considered inappropriate attire in the district’s student handbook.
“I don’t think pajamas have a place in a high school either,” she said. “High school is a good place to learn about the real world.”
“I feel that herding the girls into the auditorium was rude,” said another parent, who wished to remain anonymous. Her sixteen year-old daughter was wearing shorts that were at her mid-thigh and a tank top with a long sleeve shirt over it yesterday when she was detained in the auditorium.
“To publicly embarrass students, to pick them out and segregate them – it’s bullying,” she said.
She said that the school is unfairly seeking to punish girls for violating the dress code, while boys are able to get away with all sorts of infractions.
“They (boys) can walk around with their (expletives) hanging out with their underwear showing, or they can wear skinny jeans so we can all see their (expletives),” the parent said.
This parent also brought up the issue of poverty, which she feels may be keeping students from complying with the district’s dress code due to only having a certain set of clothes.
School Superintendent Dr. Suzanne Scallion believes that to be a smaller issue than it is being made out to be.
“There are around twelve displaced families that I know of,” Scallion said, referring to families which are living with relatives or using vouchers to stay in nearby hotels. “We aren’t in an urban setting like Detroit or even Boston. I don’t know of a single case where a student is living on the street (at Westfield High), but I don’t know of a teacher in this school who wouldn’t buy clothes for a student if they were in need.”
Scallion would go on to say that her phone hasn’t been ringing off the hook with complaints, but that she has in fact received compliments from parents saying thank you for enforcing the district’s dress code.
“They have been saying ‘these are the battles we’re having at the breakfast and dinner table’,” said Scallion, referring to the struggle some families face when purchasing clothes that are fashionable but also appropriate.
When asked if the current student outcry over dress code enforcement was caused by a lax attitude under past administrations, Scallion dismisses the notion.
“Fashion trends are changing,” she said, while also mentioning the brutal heat western Mass. has been subjected to this summer. “Kids are pushing the limits. But we’re looking to raise expectations for our students, and focus on achievement. Change is difficult, but with change comes opportunity.”
Leaders within the WHS student community support the new principal, who earned a reputation as a disciplinary reformer during stays at Dean Tech in Holyoke and the High School of Commerce and the High School of Science and Technology in Springfield.
“I am a hardline supporter… I believe it is time that our education is treated with respect and absolute seriousness,” said Devon Kurtz, the president of the class of 2016, on Carter’s decision to nip this issue in the bud early in his tenure. “If we are to move forward as a school, and as young adults, we must begin the process of a massive attitude change.”
To many, that attitude change begins with curbing and putting an end to many prevalent adolescent tricks.
“Parents may think their children are dressing appropriately when they leave the house, but they’re bringing different clothes to change into once they get to school,” said Sullivan.
Hoyt Erickson also added that many of the girls who were brought to the auditorium changed immediately into clothes they brought to school, meaning they already understood the policy.
“Every parent has their own opinion of what is appropriate,” Sullivan added, before saying that no dress code-related calls have been placed to any of the middle schools in the district. “But the cleavage, the short-shorts, halter tops… We need to keep them (students) accountable.”
She also denies that the school is attempting to discriminate against girls specifically.
“It’s easier to pick the girls out,” she said. “You’ve got a lot of seniors, juniors and sophomores who have been getting away with it.”
Hoyt Erickson pointed out that one boy was brought to the auditorium for wearing pyramid studs on an article of his clothing. She is making a point to attend a meeting next week with Principal Carter and a small group of parents to discuss possible changes to the wording of the policy.
“Students need to treat this as a formal learning environment,” she said. “It’s not a sleepover. It’s not a slumber party. It’s school.”
Kurtz echoes her sentiments.
“I understand that people wish to express their individuality, but the primary purpose of education is to facilitate a safe, efficient learning environment, and to ensure the success of all students,” he said.
Media Credit: The Westfield News