Last year, Emily Wallis grew accustomed to weekly admonishments for violating the school dress code.
The Bel Air High sophomore's transgressions included wearing blouses that were too low cut and shirts that exposed her midriff.
"The dress code is too strict," the Bel Air resident said. "If I want to wear a shirt that shows my belly ring, I think I should be allowed to. I like to wear the latest fashions, and it's hard to find any clothes that meet the dress code standards."
After school officials told her at the end of last year that the dress code was going to be even tougher this year, Emily decided it was time for a change in attitude, as well as wardrobe. This year, she and her mother read the code before going shopping for school clothes.
"When Emily picked something out, I asked her if it would meet the dress code, and if it didn't, then I didn't buy it," said her mother, Laurie Wallis. "It makes no sense to buy things she can't wear to school."
Emily isn't the only student making adjustments to her attire.
In the wake of increasing complaints from parents and school board members about the prevalence of inappropriately dressed students, school officials are stepping up enforcement of the dress code. They've also added a section governing baggy pants.
"Some of what kids are wearing, like hip-huggers and baggy pants, are part of the culture they are living in," said Stephen Lentowski, the director of student services for county schools. "And due to peer pressure, that's what some of them want to wear. So we have to set guidelines for what's appropriate to wear to school."
The pants provision is intended to address concerns over appropriateness and safety, said school board President Mark Wolkow. A student wearing some styles of baggy or low-riding pants could face a hazard when using a staircase, but school officials also are concerned about the possibility of students concealing items that don't belong in school.
A stricter dress policy is seen by administrators as a more desirable approach than the use of metal detectors or body searches at some schools across the United States.
"We want the schools to be schools, not prisons," Wolkow said.
Going into the school year, principals were instructed to beef up enforcement of the dress code, said Dwayne "Buzz" Williams, assistant principal at Bel Air High.
Faculty and staff members monitor students as they arrive for classes at the 1,700-student school, and in the first three weeks 23 students have been flagged for dress code violations. So far the scofflaws have received verbal warnings. But subsequent violations will bring stiffer consequences, ranging from after-school detention to a one-day suspension.
"Usually the progressive consequences plan sends a message to the students, and they quickly abide by the rules," Williams said. "We're not the Gestapo, we're trying to take the proactive approach upfront."
Although some students think the dress code is too stringent, Bel Air Principal Joseph Voskuhl said it's about setting limits.
"Having a dress code sends a message that students need to learn that there's weekend attire and there's school attire," he said.
Some student attire has been an issue for years, but Voskuhl said most problem areas revolve around fads, such as girls wearing pajama bottoms as pants.
"Pajamas bottoms fall under lingerie and therefore are not acceptable in schools," he said. "So that one was easy to stop."
Many of the problem areas center on girls' attire, Voskuhl said. Concerns include skirt length, visible bra straps and the exposure of too much cleavage.
"The dress code says that students can not wear any clothing that is distracting or disruptive to the educational process," said Voskuhl. "Girls wearing low-cut shirts can be very distracting."
Areas of concern for boys include baggy pants, tank tops, shirts with holes, and shirts emblazoned with graphic language or symbols.
Some students - even boys - think girls get the short end of the stick when it comes to dress code guidelines.
"They get on the girls when they wear spaghetti straps and I don't think they are bad at all," said Torey Garza, an 18-year-old senior. "I've seen guys wearing black shirts covered with holes, or kids with gelled and spiked Mohawk hairstyles. When you have those types of things coming into the school, what's the point in worrying about a bra strap showing?"
As for his own clothing, Garza leans mostly toward preppy attire, but he likes baggy pants sometimes.
"I like to sag a little bit because it's the style I grew up in," he said. "And it's more comfortable. I have never been told my pants are too low, so I assume they are OK."
But in instances where the pants don't meet the guidelines, T.J. Russell, a junior at Bel Air High, said the clause could help eliminate possible safety concerns.
"I can't say much about the people that wear baggy pants at Bel Air High, because I don't know them," he said. "But we saw a video where kids were hiding weapons, like guns and knives, in them. So I think that having strict guidelines for baggy pants is needed for our own safety."
Yet as the list of unacceptable clothing continues to grow, students say they are learning to work around the system.
During the first week of classes, Emily wore a lace top through which her bra strap was visible. She was stopped by a faculty member and told to don a cover-up. She complied, but later came up with a way to wear the shirt to school.
"All I have to do is wear a strapless bra," she said. "You have to learn to work within the system."
The new provision in the dress code for county schools relating to pants:
Pants shall be secured at the waist; must not touch or drag on the ground; must not reveal undergarments or bare skin while sitting or bending; must not have any holes or tears above the knee; the crotch of the pants shall be no longer than the student's longest fingertip when the student's hands are held at his or her side; and the bottom of the pants must be no wider than the length of the wearer's shoes.
[Source: Harford County Public Schools]