School Climate & Safety

District Dress Code Attracts Nationwide Attention

By Darcia Harris Bowman — October 15, 2003 3 min read
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A small Texas school district is making national news for suspending more than 700 students in the first month of classes for violating a dress code.

In the Duncanville Independent School District, the high school and 9th Grade Center were averaging roughly 24 suspensions each school day since opening Aug. 18.

Under the district’s dress policy for students in grades 7-12, a first violation earns a one-day suspension from school. A student who violates the policy a second time receives a two-day suspension, and three or more violations means a two-day suspension plus a possible loss of school privileges, district spokeswoman Karla Oliver said.

While dress codes are hardly unusual at public schools, Duncanville’s decision to suspend students for even the slightest infractions has raised eyebrows in Texas and beyond.

And some parents say the district’s zero-tolerance policy goes too far.

Teresa K. Montgomery said she couldn’t believe her ears when her daughter Raylee, a 13-year-old who attends the district’s 9th Grade Center, called home in tears, saying she was being suspended for having her shirt untucked from her pants—even though she immediately tucked it in after an administrator pulled her aside in the hallway.

“She was really distraught,” Ms. Montgomery said. “I thought she misunderstood what they’d told her. I said, ‘You can’t be serious. Just go back to class, and I’ll see you this afternoon.’ ”

But school administrators were serious. An assistant principal called Ms. Montgomery back to inform her that the infraction had indeed earned her daughter a one-day suspension.

“I was thinking at that point that maybe she took her shirt off,” Ms. Montgomery said.

‘Reasonable Judgment’

There are many ways students can run afoul of the dress policy in the Duncanville district, located outside of Dallas.

No capri pants. No overalls. No sweat pants. No athletic jerseys. No tank tops or tube tops. No low-riding, hip-hugging pants. No body piercings. No hats. No hooded sweatshirts.

Belts are required unless the pants or skirt lack belt loops. Shirts and blouses should be tucked in at all times—and should be long enough to stay tucked.

Also not permitted is “any dress or grooming that, in the principal’s judgment, is startling, unusual, disruptive, brings undue attention to the student, or is immodest.”

And all students are required to wear identification badges clearly visible and above the waist.

Ms. Oliver said the school board actually softened the dress code somewhat from last year. At the same time, the board required schools to step up enforcement, amid complaints that students were constantly breaking the rules without consequences.

Before this school year, Ms. Oliver said, students simply received a series of warnings and, at worst, in-school detention for repeated violations. Now, she said, “we expect our principals and teachers to exercise reasonable judgment as to what constitutes a violation.”

But some students have described what they say are administrators’ active hunts for violations.

“I was in my first class and a disciplinarian principal came in, and he asked us all to stand up by row so they could show, like, whether our shirts were tucked in, or if we had belts,” said Duncanville student Amber Holbrook, during an Oct. 1 appearance on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

Ms. Holbrook said her shirt had come untucked when she sat down, but the principal “wouldn’t let me tuck it back in. He just suspended me right there.”

Does that example constitute reasonable judgment on the part of administrators?

“We can’t comment on any specific cases,” the district’s Ms. Oliver said. “But we do believe our administrators are being reasonable in what they’re asking students to do.”

Parents like Ms. Montgomery and Amber Holbrook’s father, David, disagree.

If the board refuses to revoke its suspension policy, Ms. Montgomery said she may file a lawsuit.

“That’s what they’re backing me into,” she said. “The laws that govern us every day in the real world aren’t zero tolerance, so why should our kids be treated this way in school?”

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