School Climate & Safety

Schools Ratchet Up the Rules on Student Clothing, Threats

By Jessica Portner — May 12, 1999 6 min read

Before the school shootings in Colorado last month, a student arriving at school wearing a black trench coat wouldn’t have gotten a second glance. Now, he might be suspended.

In the charged atmosphere following the April 20 shootings at a Jefferson County, Colo., high school that left a teacher and 14 students--including the two gunmen--dead, many school leaders across the country are saying they can’t be too careful.

Reports that the Columbine High School gunmen had associated with a clique called the “Trenchcoat Mafia” and had shown signs of a propensity for violence have led educators to treat unusual dress and hyperbolic talk as potentially serious matters.

Schools jittery about possible copycat incidents have maintained a take-no-chances stance toward even idle-seeming threats of violence. That cautious approach strengthens safety policies that many administrators already had toughened after a spate of high-profile school shootings during the 1997-98 school year. (“Officials Take No Chances After Killings,” June 3, 1998.)

Different or Dangerous?

But now, its students’ attire and personal expression are under the microscope as well. For example:

  • In Jonesboro, Ark., the scene of a multiple school shooting last April, a group of girls and boys identifying themselves as the “blazer mafia” were suspended for 10 days late last month.
  • In Brimfield, Ohio, last month, 11 students were suspended for contributing to a World Wide Web site with a so-called Goth or Gothic theme--a style also associated with the Colorado gunmen--that was prepared off campus.
  • In a suburban Philadelphia school, a student participating in a group discussion about the Columbine High shootings was suspended after she stated that she could “understand how somebody could have snapped” as the two students in Colorado did.

Administrators say such tough disciplinary measures are a pre-emptive strike against students who may be prone to violence.

“There are no longer any idle threats,” said Gary Marx, a spokesman for the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va.

“If we are to be civilized, there has to be some sense of appropriateness and decorum,” he said.

Patrolling for teenagers wearing trench coats may be necessary if administrators are going to catch students who could conceal a weapon, Mr. Marx added.

But Ann Beeson, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, called such suspensions overreactions and said schools were trampling on students’ constitutional right to free speech.

She pointed to a case on April 30, 10 days after the Colorado incident, in which a federal judge in Salt Lake City upheld the decision to suspend a student for wearing a T-shirt that said “vegan.” Vegans are vegetarians who don’t eat any animal products.

The judge, in his ruling, said the school had the right to suspend the teenager and observed that “gang attire has become particularly troubling since two students wore trench coats in the Colorado shooting.”

“This is hard to believe,” Ms. Beeson said. “There seems to be an effort now to target any kid who dresses differently; schools are equating being different with being dangerous.”

The current rash of suspensions and the debate over where to draw the line on student behavior are reminiscent of weapons-related expulsions that began a few years ago. Administrators across the country had started cracking down on students for bringing even toy guns and plastic knives to school.

Those suspensions and expulsions followed a 1996 federal law mandating that states pass legislation requiring that students be expelled for a year for bringing a weapon to school or risk losing federal education aid.

Uniforms for All?

In the past few weeks, the national attention to what the Columbine High assailants and their friends wore at school has prompted some educators to reconsider dress codes and take another look at school uniforms.

One uniform manufacturer faxed an advertisement to school districts across the country last week: “While school uniforms can’t totally eliminate school violence, it is one step to have a positive impact,” the Williamson-Dickie Manufacturing Co., a clothing company in Fort Worth, Texas, said in its statement.

In Long Beach, Calif., which was the first school district in the country to require all students to wear uniforms, sartorial conformity has meant safer campuses, according to officials there. In the four years since the Long Beach district adopted a uniform of black pants, white shirts, and red jackets, the number of assaults has dropped 85 percent, district figures show. Currently, 20 percent of the nation’s school districts use uniforms, most of them voluntarily.

But educators’ scrutiny of students’ clothing and their musings in Internet chat rooms and on Web pages has angered some students. These students say that violent tendencies cannot be determined by the clothes they wear, the Web sites they create, or even the jokes they make.

Robert Mahaffey, a spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals in Reston, Va., acknowledged last week that wearing a dark trench coat is no proof of a dangerous personality. But, he said, principals must take it seriously when students mimic the behaviors of student killers.

“It is important to be fair in dealing with young people and not indulge the tendency to draw broad-brush conclusions,” he said. “But we are all looking very acutely at what we can do to ensure that these events never happen again.”

In general, Mr. Mahaffey said, principals need to be prepared to identify warning signs and cries for help. School leaders should establish clear codes of conduct, communicate them effectively, and enforce them fairly. Students can help improve the behavior of their classmates, too, he said.

‘Students for Peace’

Lately, many young people have been trying to do just that.

In the days after the Colorado shootings, students at Hillsboro High School in Nashville, Tenn., started a pledge effort in which students agree to stop taunting peers who dress, talk, or act differently. The Columbine gunmen, seniors Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, had said on a Web site that they felt ostracized and had been taunted by athletes at school because of the way they dressed.

The pledge, which spread across the Internet, had amassed more than 5,000 signatures as of last week, including 850 students at Green Mountain, another high school in Jefferson County, Colo.

Students in Colorado also issued calls for tolerance in recent weeks. Many in the 89,000-student Jefferson County district marched near the sealed Columbine High School carrying white banners and signs that read: “Jefferson County students for peace.”

Kathy Sievering, the school psychologist at the district’s Little Elementary School, said that inculcating good behavior must start when children are very young.

“We have to work with kids from kindergarten on, and teach them empathy for others,” she said from her office, which is plastered with hundreds of red paper hearts. Each heart has a student’s name on it and represents a “random act of kindness,” she said. Ms. Sievering counseled many of the frightened Columbine students who ran to the nearby elementary school.

Ms. Sievering advises counselors to spend time getting to know every child from the day he or she walks through the school door.

Students don’t always wear their troubles on their sleeves, she said.

A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 1999 edition of Education Week as Schools Ratchet Up the Rules on Student Clothing, Threats

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