Harper Woods School Board discusses dress code issues

By: April Lehmbeck | Advertiser Times | Published February 12, 2013

HARPER WOODS — While there are no imminent plans to make changes to the dress code, the school board recently chatted about the possibility of making tweaks, like requiring a specific shirt and pant color.

The issue was raised during a school board work session Feb. 5, after board Trustee Tabithia Mahone requested the issue be on the agenda.

“The dress code we have now is not consistent,” she said. “Maybe we should revise (it) … setting them up for, like, a business, corporate world or college.”

She mentioned possibly ties for boys and a more conservative dress code for girls, as well.

While most of the board didn’t think ties were a good idea, some at the table, including the board and administrators, discussed other options to update the dress code.

Mahone feels it might set a tone that would help avoid issues such as fighting and other behavior problems.

“Our secondary students, in particular, are not consistently conducting themselves as sophisticated adults,” Superintendent Todd Biederwolf said during the discussion.

Currently, students have minimal choices in pant colors and must wear solid shirt colors with collars, like polo-style shirts. However, the board talked possibly of limiting colors even more in the future, down to one color for shirts and one for pants.

With the current dress code, some students are finding creative ways to change things up, but still stay within the dress code limits. There are other problems related to the dress code, too. 

Tyrone Elementary Principal Cheryl Vanderlinden said that she believes the dress code is too vague and makes enforcement challenging. The principals at the meeting seemed to be on board with considering limiting colors in the dress code.

“As an administrator, it can be difficult to enforce certain things because they are so open to interpretation,” Vanderlinden said. “I don’t think anybody is blatantly out there trying not to purchase dress code clothes.

“I just think tightening up a little bit will help,” she said.

One big concern from all who attended the meeting was the financial aspect — whether parents could afford any change in dress code at this time.

Board Treasurer Jill Quarker raised the concern that it might be an added burden on families to change the dress code, requiring different items of clothing than students currently have in their closets.

She listened to the conversation, but had some reservations about the dress code issue.

Quarker said that an initial change should be a dress code for teachers that require them to lead by example.

“How do we expect our kids to live up to a standard that they don’t even see an example of,” she said, adding that before she agrees to ask students to dress for a more business-style environment, “I’m going to ask the teachers to get dressed up like they’re going to work first.

“Once you implement it for teachers, I’ll consider it,” she said.

Quarker said she was on the fence about limiting colors further, but was not in favor of a dress code that required ties.

Board Secretary Tracy Purnell recommended that, if any changes are made, they do not go into effect right away.

It would give families time to prepare for the change.

Beacon Elementary Principal Janet Gottsleben felt that a one-color option would make it easier for enforcement and for parents when shopping for school clothes.

“There is an atmosphere when you walk in and see the children with the same kind of colored pants and the same shirt,” Gottsleben said.

Vanderlinden said that it wouldn’t be such a stretch for many students who come to the district from other schools with limited dress codes.

Trustee Regina Williams, who teaches in a school with a more specific dress code, said that she agrees that the current dress code is too open for interpretation and should be tightened up.

“It really should be one type of pants, one type of shirt,” she said. “You’re giving them way too much leeway.”

“Each school sticks to one color, one something,” she said of where she teaches. “It does make a difference. It makes a difference in their attitude. … Ours is pretty strict and we stick to it.”

She did say that the district should continue to allow athletic shoes, because some families can only afford one pair of shoes, so students need to wear the same shoes during their other classes and to gym class.

“Some of them are actually truly economically challenged,” she said.

The problem, however, is that some board members are unsure whether changing the dress code requirements would fix the crux of the problem, which may lie with enforcement issues of the current dress code.

“We’ve been talking about this dress code for years,” board Vice President David Kien said. “If the current dress code isn’t being enforced, what good does it do to create a different dress code?

“The first thing is you have to enforce what you have,” Kien said.

He did say that he didn’t have any objection to considering the one-color choice, if that’s what the administration decides it wants to do.

Mahone agreed that better enforcement of dress code policy is important.

“We need the enforcement,” she said. “If you enforce this, it could change some of the behavior.”

In the end, the board is leaving the matter in the hands of the administration, which can decide if they want to come back with any proposals in the future.

“We’re not going to solve this tonight,” board President Brian Selburn said.