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Lawmakers debate Central Falls dress code

April 25, 2013

PROVIDENCE – At what point does a general school dress code policy become a strict uniform requirement?

That was one of the questions put to Rep. Agostinho Silva by the House Health Education and Welfare committee when he testified for his bill that would require the Central Falls School District to adopt “a reasonable school-wide dress code policy that requires pupils to wear a school-wide uniform and prohibits pupils from wearing ‘gang-related apparel.’”

“This bill is talking about just making sure children have the right to have a dress code, as opposed to mandating that certain kinds of uniforms be worn,” said Rep. Marvin Abney of Newport. With uniforms, he said, “you do get into cost, and other things like that.”

Abney said he wanted to make sure a dress code does not “morph” into a uniform requirement.

Silva pointed out that his bill calls for a six-month period before a dress code would be required and in that time there would be meetings and public hearings to get input from parents and students. “The parent groups, the student groups, the administrators would all be part of that discussion before they went forward with a dress code or uniform,” Silva said. He assured the panel that the policy will not be formulated behind closed doors and presented to parents as a fait accompli.

The Central Falls Democrat said “there will be options for students as far as families who can not afford it.

No school department officials, or any parents or students from Central Falls, showed up to testify at the hearing.

Without using the G-word – Central Falls school officials adamantly deny that there are gangs in the city’s high school or middle school – Silva explained that his legislation “would discourage students from adopting ‘colors’ or outfits that set them apart from their peers and give them a different identity or distinguish cliques within the schools.

HEW Chairman Joseph McNamara, a retired Pawtucket School Department administrator pointed out that similar legislation was passed for the Woonsocket schools several years ago and former President Bill Clinton “was a big supporter, and still is, of student dress codes, so you are in good company.”

Andy Andrade, special assistant to the commissioner of education for legislative affairs, told the committee that the Woonsocket bill passed in 2009. He noted that in 2010 there was a bill for school uniforms in Newport that did not pass.

In 2011, he added there was a bill to enable all school districts statewide to adopt dress codes “and we thought that was a great idea, rather than doing it piecemeal,” Andrade said.

He added that Silva’s bill, “has a lot of ingredients of one we would want. It seems in this bill there are a lot of room for different colors and different options.

“Critical to this,” Andrade said, “is that there is a stipulation for input from students, teachers and principals.” He said the state Department of Education would support the bill.”

The RI ACLU, on the other hand, does not.

Hillary Davis, a policy associate with the group, said it filed a complaint against the Woonsocket dress code in 2010 but it was later withdrawn when it was discovered that the policy was voluntary and was not being enforced.

Silva’s legislation has a passage stating that each dress code policy “shall include a provision that no pupil shall be penalized academically or otherwise discriminated against nor denied attendance to school if the pupil's parents chose not to have the pupil comply with the school dress code policy.”

Davis said “we don’t believe Rhode Island schools have the legal authority to mandate a uniform dress code. She pointed to a 1971 ruling by the commissioner of education in a case called Gardner v. Cumberland School Committee that stated “Neither school administrators nor school committees have authority by law or by the constitution to determine the mode of dress of pupils unless it presents a clear and present danger to the student’s health and safety, causes an interference with school work, or creates a classroom or school disorder.

“In the 40 years since,” Davis said, “that has not been challenged or overturned so we believe that is the law in Rhode Island at this point in time.”

Davis said research has shown that dress codes “do not have the positive effects many schools hope that it will and in fact it has some negative effects. It does not keep students from competing in what they wear, it just transfers it to other parts of their clothing – their shoes, their watches, their backpacks.

“Some schools have found there is a competition over whose uniform looks newest, so kids who are low-income, who have hand-me-down uniforms, end up being singled out because their uniform looks older.”

The committee voted to hold the bill for further study.

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