School dress code proposal is criticized as too vague; Ethnic and cultural issues, possibility of uniforms raised


A handful of parents criticized a proposed dress code for Howard County public school students last night as too vague, with some calling on the Howard school board to consider switching to a school uniform policy.

While the updated dress code proposal targets the usual offenders -- revealing attire, obscene slogans and logos promoting drugs or alcohol -- some of the interpretation about what is distracting or inappropriate is left up to school principals.

It also does not address ethnic or cultural dress, despite a 1997-1998 school year incident involving an African-style head wrap that wound up in U.S. District Court.

Ken Jennings, a member of the school system's equity council and a member of the African American Coalition of Howard County, said the policy should consider clothing worn for cultural, religious or medical reasons.

Jennings referred to the case of Shermia Isaacs, a former Harper's Choice Middle School pupil who was barred from wearing a head wrap because of that school's no-hats policy.

An attorney for Shermia challenged the policy in court, but the school system's decision was upheld.

Jennings and other equity council members lobbied for ethnicity and culture to be considered in the new dress code policy, but Superintendent Michael E. Hickey said doing so would only create more confusion.

Jennings said the proposed dress code doesn't ensure consistency because the provisions are open to interpretation by individual schools.

"The weakness is in what is not stated," he said.

Glenn Workman, a parent who addressed the board barefoot, said that one of his daughters was reprimanded for her attire at school while her identically dressed sister was not.

The current policy "undermines personal freedom," Workman said.

Maggie Hodgson, a Waverly Elementary School parent, said she preferred the school uniform policy that her children followed when the family lived in Australia, and she urged the school board to consider such a policy.

The school board will vote on the updated dress code at a future meeting.

Suspensions were also discussed at last night's meeting.

The number of suspensions in Howard County schools decreased by one case during the 1998-1999 school year, and an official expressed concern about an increase in violent outbursts from elementary school students.

There were 273 suspensions referred to Hickey during the 1998-1999 school year compared with 274 the previous year.

While suspensions at the high school and middle school level decreased during that time, the percentage of elementary school children suspended increased from 2 percent to 3 percent.

"We're starting to see a lot more severe behavior with our young ones," said school instructional coordinator Eugene Streagle.

The number of expulsions dropped by more than half during the 1998-1999 school year, from 37 to 18.

Pub Date: 9/10/99

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