Dress Codes for Teachers, TV Trouble,
And a Place Called Sanctuary

July 08, 2005 3 min read
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Tsk, tsk. It appears as if some teachers have been awfully naughty lately. There was that high school chemistry teacher in Houston, for example, who allegedly gave passing grades to two students who stole and torched her car so that she could collect the insurance money. And there’s the New York City social studies teacher who used 11 sick days to work as a professional wrestler. The district is demanding that the 31-year-old—known in the ring as Hydro, whose specialty is the “lungblower” maneuver—pay back the school for the days he originally claimed he’d spent tending to a sick relative.

But these offenses pale in comparison with the one committed by an evidently growing number of educators nationwide: wearing inappropriate clothing in classrooms. T-shirts, baseball caps, skimpy tops, short skirts, and flip-flops are among the attire targeted by new faculty dress codes in numerous districts. “There’s an impression that teachers are dressing more and more—well, the good term for it would be ‘relaxed,’ ” says one Michigan school board official. While prohibiting certain forms of dress certainly makes sense, some teachers worry about a fashion-police approach. “What’s too short? What’s too long? What’s too provocative? … Everyone has their own definition,” says a union representative in Alabama. One Colorado district gets right to the point with its policy, prohibiting clothing which exposes “cleavage, private parts, the midriff, or undergarments.” In some circles, this is known as the “common sense” dress code.

Practitioners of common sense may have already guessed what a recent report by the good people at Johns Hopkins University has concluded: Kids with televisions in their rooms are less academically successful than their TV-poor peers. A survey of 400 California 3rd graders during the 1999-2000 school year shows that those kids with TVs in their own rooms (64 percent) scored 8 points lower on math and language arts standardized tests and 7 points lower in reading. Meanwhile, students who had access to a computer scored 6 points and 4 points higher, respectively. What does all this mean? Dina Borzekowski, lead author of the survey report—titled “The Remote, the Mouse, and the No. 2 Pencil”—and a mother of three, says, “I do believe that media should be a shared experience so parents and kids can discuss and enjoy what’s being watched together. That’s more likely to happen if the media is in the family room than in the bedroom.”

How’s this for strange bedfellows: A school board in suburban Detroit recently voted unanimously in favor of allowing to sell the naming rights to its district’s schools. Which means that if, say, the local Wal-Mart put up 51 percent of the cost of a new elementary school, that school could be called something like Wal-Mart Smithville Elementary. It’s obvious why a number of districts nationwide are at least considering doing the same thing: They need the dough. But such a move is stirring intense debate about whether commercialism in schools has gone too far. “It’s everywhere; it’s on everything,” complains one parent from Plymouth-Canton, the district that voted in favor of the measure. Tom Sklut, the chief development officer, counters, “We absolutely have to look at other funding opportunities. Summer school hangs in the balance … music programs.”

While money is the bottom line in some schools, mental health is at stake in others. At least that’s the perspective of Alex Briscoe, who landed himself a job a few years ago as dropout-prevention counselor at McClymonds High, a school in a troubled part of Oakland that was then graduating less than a fifth of each original 9th grade class. Briscoe first created “Sanctuary,” a discussion room for students that was off-limits to administrators, and then, after one student revealed that she’d been raped, he teamed up with Barbara Staggers, a doctor at the local children’s hospital. After decades of practice, Staggers had come to believe that mental health was at the root of most of her young patients’ violent behavior, so together, she and Briscoe created a professional mental health clinic at the school, one that’s now staffed with social workers and therapists and provides students with everything from art classes to discreet treatment for ailments. Of the 750 students at McClymonds, almost half visited the clinic last year. The administrator of a larger county clinic, one modeled on McClymonds’, says, “If you combine your mental health with a spoken-word workshop or a videography workshop, places where people are telling stories about their lives, it’s a more effective way to wellness. It’s mental health in disguise.”

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