Sunday, December 30, 2012

Last-Minute Curmie Contenders: Dress Code Edition

It’s the end of the year and Curmie is behind on his writing, so this is the mad flurry to try to get potential Curmie Award nominees eligible by writing about them in 2012. This post is the dress code edition (there have already been a couple of good examples of dress code stupidity this year: turns out I barely scratched the surface); it includes a range of stories from throughout the year. I do apologize, however, that a couple of the following will be based on a single news source. I’m normally more conscientious, but I want to get all this written up. I’ll be sure to check other sources if any of these stories lead to an actual Curmie nomination.

Let me start by mentioning in passing a case that isn’t Curmie-eligible because, as far as I can determine, no educator has done anything wrong. This is the Rebecca Julius case at Concordia College in Minnesota. Ms. Julius wore a “sin is sin” shirt in response to the straight-gay alliance group’s “love is love” t-shirt. She has a right to do so. She created a firestorm for herself. That’s OK, too.

Free speech doesn’t mean other people aren’t allowed to respond to the stimulus you provide; it means you can’t be punished by official authorities (the state, in other words). Other than provoking precisely the response she wanted, Ms. Julius seems to have suffered no ill effects. I find nothing to suggest she was forbidden from wearing the shirt. Moreover, as a private, church-affiliated school, Concordia would have had the legal (not to say ethical) right to forbid the shirt, making all the 1st Amendment-based howling from predictable quarters, to use one of my mother’s favorite phrases, so much balloon juice. I do want to come back to this case later, but I make no promises that I’ll do so.

I’m also skipping the story about Maverick Couch, the gay Cincinnati-area high school student who won his court case for the right to wear a “Jesus Is Not a Homophobe” t-shirt because the events actually took place in 2011, although the case was decided this year. And I’m skipping a couple other cases where the clothing in question really could be considered offensive or disruptive or whatever, even though I might not personally agree with that assessment. Trust me, there’s still plenty to talk about.

We start, then, early in 2012 with a story I missed when it first occurred: the decision by Pottstown (PA) Middle School Principal Gail Cooper to ban Ugg boots from her school. No, this was not the fashion police. This is one of those situations in which some fairly dim-witted authority figure seeks to solve Problem X by outlawing something that has no reason to be outlawed. It’s this kind of thinking that means you now have to jump through hoops to buy Sudafed, because someone might use those pills as ingredients for their meth operation. (Be it noted: it’s also the reasoning that suggests that criminalizing all gun possession or ownership is an appropriate solution to the problem of gun violence.)

The problem is two-fold. First: it’s a dumb rule on its face. This is Pennsylvania in the winter. It snows there. I just saw snow in Pennsylvania at Christmas. I am confident that this was not an aberration. “Outdoor, open-top boots” are kinda de rigeur at least a few days a years. And, of course, there’s nothing problematic about the boots themselves: it’s their capacity to hide a cell phone that’s really at the center of this kerfuffle.

Secondly, the rule is both gendered and ineffectual: boys don’t wear Uggs. The suggestion that the new rule is no different from requiring students to remove coats and hats is, of course, silly. Boots must be removed and replaced. That means a change of footwear stays in the locker, or must be schlepped from home every day. And since the rule is gendered, the idea—asserted on a Facebook post—that girls who really want to violate the cell phone ban can do so by hiding the offending objects in their bras (or pockets, or…) seems plausible. BTW, did anyone else just have a flashback to that scene at the end of “Diamonds Are Forever” in which Tiffany Case tries unsuccessfully to hide something roughly the size of a cell phone in her bikini? Of course, if there are a lot of middle-schoolers in Pottstown who look like Jill St. John in her prime, Curmie is rather jealous that he wasn’t twelve at a different time and place.

If you want to ban cell phones, do it. And make the punishment sufficient that the problem gets solved. Done. Banning Ugg boots is both stupid (leading to cynicism about rules in general) and no-doubt ineffective (leading to contempt for the system): not exactly what we ought to be teaching our adolescents.

In Meridian, CT, there are different horrors: skinny jeans, leggings, and women’s cut t-shirts. Yes, apparel that is “form fitting” is verboten. Also, “undergarments and private body areas must not be evident or visible through clothing.” There are also the usual admonitions about skirt length, yadda yadda yadda. Part of this makes sense. But, as usual, the people writing the policy (it passed, of course, in the then-imminent school board vote mentioned in the linked article) are either illiterate (certainly a possibility, given some of the grammatical nightmares therein contained) or prudish or just flat-out stupid.

As written, the policy would ban any indication that a student is wearing undergarments… a bra-line, for example. Of course, it’s also prohibited to suggest that such undergarments aren’t being worn. The whole idea is both silly and doomed to failure, completely apart from the legitimate concerns expressed by teachers’ union rep Geoff Kenyon that the new rules would create an “us vs. them mentality” and “[channel] too much valuable time, energy and resources into a futile pursuit.” Sigh.

A few months later, in Oklahoma City, a kindergartener was forced to turn his t-shirt inside out because it violated the school’s dress code. Was it political? Was there profane or obscene language? Did it advocate violence? Well… no. It was a generic University of Michigan shirt. Oh, that explains it. Because… well… OK, I give up.

Ah, but you see, at Wilson Elementary School, there’s a policy that gear from professional teams (even the Oklahoma City Thunder) and universities is forbidden. There’s an exception for Oklahoma universities… sources disagree about whether all OK universities (Oklahoma City University, for example) are exempted or whether it’s just OU and OSU that get a waiver. Anyway, it’s a profoundly stupid rule, created “[in] cooperation with the Oklahoma City Police Department Gang Task Force… after concerns that nationwide gangs used popular sports clothing to represent individual gangs.”

This is the same kind of circuitous thinking that gives us bans on Ugg boots, with the further twist that gangs presumably wouldn’t want to associate themselves with a couple of major universities, but would with others. Because, you know, I gotta admit: when I see a five-year-old in a Michigan shirt, I don’t think “that’s cute; probably one of his parents went there.” Nope. I jump straight to “gang member.” Really, I mean just check out the thuggishness on display in the photo at left.

Two points. First, gang task forces exist for one purpose only: to make it look like gang task forces serve a legitimate function. If they actually solved the problem, their alleged expertise would not only be unnecessary (i.e., the status quo), but would be perceived as the waste of resources it truly is, which of course is a situation that must never be allowed to occur.

Second, it doesn’t matter that the district is now re-examining the policy, or that the little boy was adopted by the Michigan athletic department. It was an unspeakably cretinous rule from the get-go, and the fact that it was enforced even once, on a five-year-old is all the evidence we need to make this a legitimate Curmie contender.

Elsewhere, twelve-year-old Danielle O’Neal is a felon waiting to happen, at least according to the Pamlico County Schools in North Carolina. She… oh, the horror… had her shirt untucked and (wait for it) visible under her sweater. In public, no less. Not only that, but this criminal mastermind is a repeat offender. Only last year, she forgot to wear a belt. I know, I know, the next step is mass murder… or, even worse, mismatched socks.

Yeah, yeah, I get it. Rules are rules. But even ridiculous rules (no belt? really?) can be enforced intelligently. Instead, somebody made a stupid announcement that there’d be no more warnings, and there’s nothing in the code to distinguish between serious and minor violations. This is why, Principal Lisa Jackson, someone created the concept of discretion. Nope. This is serious. The girl needs to serve an in-school suspension and have the episode be recorded in her permanent record. After all, “my job is to make sure students follow our school's Code of Conduct, which includes the dress code adopted by the Board of Education.” Bullshit. You job, you freaking idiot, is to be smarter than the rule book. Tell the damned kid to tuck in her shirt. Boom. We’re done.

And please, please, Superintendent Wanda Dawson, spare me from claptrap about how enforcing a dress code has improved success rates… or provide some evidence for that assertion. Either way would be fine. It is plausible that eliminating gang paraphernalia and other forms of legitimately inappropriate attire might have a positive effect. But I await with bated breath the study that demonstrates that an untucked shirt on a 7th grade girl sends educational accomplishment into a death spiral.

Meanwhile, in Ohio, at Celina High School this political season (the story I read was datelined on Hallowe’en), crudely drawn t-shirts announcing “I support” with the rainbow logo were deemed “political” or “disruptive” or some other sort of Really Bad Thing that the idiots in the school administration decided was sufficient cause to ban those shorts but not, apparently, shirts proclaiming the President of the United States to be a socialist.

You, Gentle Reader, will have already perceived that there’s a backstory here. Earlier, on “twins day,” two female students had worn t-shirts labeled “Lesbian 1” and “Lesbian 2.” Naturally, the administration was Shocked and Appalled that two young women would Call Attention to Themselves in such a despicable manner, especially on a day pretty much reserved for… uh… calling attention to yourself. It wasn’t that they were lesbians. Oh, no, surely that had nothing to do with it. We’re not homophobic assholes; we just pretend to be when we’re at work. Not only that, but “[screaming] at” students is the appropriate means to deal with the situation.

It’s interesting that the administration’s point person on this is the Superintendent, Jesse Steiner, who was reportedly “unable to confirm” if there’s a rule in the handbook against “political” clothing. It’s reasonable if there is, but, of course, there isn’t. How do I know? Because the superintendent can’t open up the damned handbook and point to it. End of discussion.

The “disruption” idea is, to be sure, the kind of squishy phrase inserted by Steiner and like-minded autocrats in schools across the country. Translated into English, it means “there’s nothing illegal, unethical, or immoral about what you’re doing, but we don’t like it and we’re going to forbid it because we can.”

Drew Dennis, a litigation coordinator with ACLU Ohio, aptly describes the “disruption” argument a “heckler’s veto.” Moreover, there’s a pro-life student group that wears t-shirts featuring a picture of a fetus. Which shirt calls more attention to itself? And which one has been fine all along, whereas the other causes such uproar that the educational mission cannot be accomplished? You, oh perspicacious reader, already know the answer.

Also from this fall’s political season—a little earlier than the Ohio case, in fact—comes the saga of Samantha Pawlucy, who committed the apparent crime of wearing a Mitt Romney t-shirt to her geometry class at Charles Carroll High School in Philadelphia. Although her attire hadn’t as much as raised an eyebrow earlier in the day, she claims she was berated by math teacher Lynette Gaymon, who likened her “Republican shirt” to “a KKK shirt” (Gaymon is black, by the way), arguing that “this is a democratic school.”

Gaymon claims she was joking, and it’s possible although unlikely that she was. Certainly Pawlucy comes off as an opportunist with a lawsuit against the school, and her claim that she didn’t know if her parents are Republicans is either disingenuous or evidence that the girl is an idiot. Still, if Gaymon weren’t the real miscreant here, I suspect we’d be hearing from someone other than her that the episode was all in jest.

It will no doubt come as an enormous surprise to you, Gentle Reader, but Curmie’s own teaching style occasionally incorporates the ironic or even sardonic. There have been occasions in the last 33+ years in which something said as a joke was interpreted literally: and that’s by college students, not high school sophomores. But with Pawlucy’s claim that Gaymon was “screaming,” the opportunity certainly exists for someone else who was there to say, “erm, no, she wasn’t,” or to claim that any rational being would have interpreted the remarks as in jest. The fact that such an eventuality has apparently not occurred can be taken as significant.

Despite the conflicting claims, then, and despite the fact that I don’t especially trust either Pawlucy or her father, I’ve got to suspect that her version of events is closer to the truth. And if it is, then Gaymon’s actions are well beyond the Pale, and worthy of Curmie consideration.

More Curmie wannabees forthcoming...

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