Carroll schools revise student dress code

Carroll County Public Schools has revised its student dress code policy to prevent students from wearing clothing with symbols that can be seen as promoting intolerance, hate, racial slurs or sexual harassment, effective once the new school year begins Aug. 31.

The decision comes after controversy this summer surrounding the Confederate flag set off when nine members of a historic black church were fatally shot in South Carolina, but school officials said the flag isn't the specific target of the change.


The new policy will be changed to say that clothing shall not convey messages or symbols that are generally accepted to promote hate, racial slurs, sexual harassment or intolerance. The former language stated that students should not wear clothing with "messages that express hate, racial slurs, or sexual harassment."

CCPS Superintendent Stephen Guthrie said at the Board of Education's Aug. 12 meeting that language in the current student dress code policy, drafted by students in 2002, would be adjusted to prevent students from wearing symbols of intolerance that might cause a disruption at school. The dress code was last revised in May 2011 to clarify the accepted length of shorts and skirts.

"I'm expanding it due to some of the feedback we've heard about some of the concerns out there — specifically the bullying. And I know I'm being vague because I can't capture in language what all the messages and symbols might be … but I know a genuine concern has come to us and this is in reaction to that," Guthrie said at the meeting.

Dana Falls, director of student services, said Friday that the policy change is not intended to target the Confederate flag.

The battle flag of Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia — what is commonly known as the Confederate flag — rose to the center of a debate earlier this summer after the shooting in Charleston, and suspect Dylann Storm Roof was reported to have used the flag as a symbol of hate and intolerance.

To some, the flag represents family heritage and to others it is a symbol of racial intolerance.

Board member Virginia Harrison brought the flag up during the Aug. 12 Board of Education meeting, asking whether the school system would tolerate the display of the flag at school. Guthrie told Harrison it would have to cause a disruption.

"This is as strong a language as I can get — I can't outright ban symbols," Guthrie said at the meeting.

Harrison did not wish to add anything beyond what she said at the meeting.

Guthrie referred questions on the topic to Falls, who said the clarification was added to ensure that all students feel comfortable and welcome while at school.

"We're here to learn. There's a fine line between free speech and a student's right to free speech and when that free speech causes an environment that is not conducive to learning," Falls said.

Despite the changes, the school system's response to students who violate the dress code won't change much, Falls said.

"If somebody were to wear something that causes disruption in school they're going to be instructed to remove it and given an opportunity to replace that garment so that school can function as a learning institution and not as a place where students are at odds with one another," Falls said.

Sue Pluta, PTSO president at Westminster High School, said she respects that the school system is thinking about the adjustment but doesn't believe there is much of an issue in Carroll schools.


"If it is discussed, it is going to become an issue. … If anybody starts challenging someone's freedom of expression that will bring it to the forefront," Pluta said.

The school system applies the Tinker Standard, established by a Supreme Court ruling in the 1969 landmark case Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent School District, which established that students have the right to free speech, though that right can't disrupt the learning environment or infringe upon the rights of others, Falls said.

Falls said that in the past the school system has had some students who have worn the Confederate battle flag on clothing.

"Sometimes that causes an issue in school, sometimes it doesn't," he said.

Such dress code issues are often easily resolved by the student wearing the message, the administrator handling the situation or even the students who are offended, Falls said.

"We're constantly looking at policy and revising it to try to put language in there that addresses current trends and issues within the school system and the greater community," Falls said.

Guthrie said he wants to send a strong message to students and the overall community.

"Our mission is to educate, and certainly we know that anyone who has a fear or anxiety isn't learning — their mind is on to something else — so this is an attempt that I'm making to provide a strong message to our students and our faculty," he said.