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Adjustment to school dress code debated, then made

The Franklin City School Board voted 5-1 during its July 15 meeting to accept the superintendent’s recommendation to add jeans without distressed tears, holes and/or rips to the allowable pants section of the dress code for kindergarten through eighth-grade students.

Carrie Johnson

At-large board member Carrie Johnson was the lone dissenting vote, and Ward 3 board member Tonya Smith was not present for the meeting.

Ward 2 board member and Board Chair Amy L. Phillips introduced the subject of the dress code, noting that the school system temporarily suspended its traditional uniform policy for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year as everyone transitioned back to in-person classes.

“And now we’re stepping into the 2021-22 school year and looking at that uniform policy,” she said.

Phillips noted that Franklin City Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Tamara Sterling was recommending to add jeans without distressed tears, holes and/or rips to the list of allowable pants with the rationale that due to the economic hardship COVID-19 has placed on families, many parents are unable to afford uniforms this school year.

“I don’t support this,” Johnson said in reference to the recommended change. “The rationale was that there was economic hardship, and I know as one of the provisions in that policy, if you look down, it says, ‘Provision shall be made for parents who truly cannot afford to purchase school uniform clothing and who can demonstrate that need.’

“I think that if the parents are going to purchase pants for their kids for the school year because they’ve outgrown what they had before, if you look online, I just did a quick, cursory search of Walmart, and it is cheaper in most instances to do the uniform pants as opposed to the jeans, which would contradict the need for this, and then at least it’s the same in some instances.”

Johnson said the uniform pants are available for between $10-14, and she was checking the prices for boys sizes 8-18 to cover the elementary/middle school span.

“When we approved the halt of (the traditional dress code) for the end of last school year, it was with the understanding that it would go ahead and revert back to the regular uniform policy,” she continued. “And there is a plethora of research out there that shows that students wearing uniforms are a benefit to the culture of the school and student achievement, and I would not like to see us waver from what we had implemented at those schools.”

Ward 5 board member Dr. Andrea Shelton asked Johnson what the cost is for a pair of jeans.

Johnson said it was anywhere from $9.94 to $30 or $40 from what she saw on the Walmart website, while the uniform khaki pants capped out at around $14.97, with options available in the $9-10 range.

Tamara Sterling

Sterling said she understood what Johnson was saying, but she also noted that her office is receiving calls from many parents requesting the schools not go back to uniforms. She said students are making this request too.

“For your reasons precisely, Ms. Johnson, I do believe that we have to have some form of a streamline when it comes to uniforms to support all of our children when it comes to those social and emotional factors, when it comes to bullying, who’s wearing what and how does this person look — I totally get that,” she said.

But Sterling said she also had to consider that there are a number of parents that are suffering economic hardship and that are still on unemployment.

“And a $9 and $14 pair of pants takes food off the table, especially if they have multiple children,” she said.

Additionally, she said the students did quite well with regard to dress when they came back to in-person classes.

“Everyone was nicely dressed, no one had to go home because they were wearing things inappropriately, and I think our children have worked hard and have deserved to be able to have a little bit more variety in the uniform, on top of the economic hardship,” Sterling said.

Concurring with Johnson on the research, Sterling emphasized that she does not want uniforms to go away, 

“I absolutely don’t, but I would like to recommend that our children have some form of variety and plus support the parents financially, because we know that they all have jeans in their wardrobes,” Sterling said.

Johnson said, “I just wanted to counter that with if the parents don’t want to spend the money because they don’t have the money, then I’m assuming that (their children are) still fitting into the clothing that they had before, which would be uniform clothing, so they should already have that available to them.

“I know that even my own kids at first did not want the uniforms,” she continued. “There’s specific research out there that says up to 90% of the students asked do not want uniforms if you just ask them, ‘Do you want to wear a uniform?’ But when they went and probed further, it actually showed that the students were actually for the benefits of the uniforms.”

Johnson said they are striving to bring the school system’s students to the highest level possible, and to that end, all arrows point toward keeping them in the uniform required by the existing policy.

“And as far as variety, we have relaxed on the colors that they can wear, and at this point, the only difference I think that needs to be made to the uniform policy might be to take a look at that gender-specific language considering what has just recently come down from the state,” she said.

She also said that in the school system’s Stream III funding, there is a provision providing principals and other school leaders with the resources necessary to address school needs.

“So, I know that we have clothes closets and there is something in this funding that we have that might be able to assist the parents that might not be able to pay for the uniforms,” she said. “I just don’t think them not wanting to wear them is enough to warrant adding jeans to the mix.”

“What if they had jeans one day a week?” Shelton asked.

“There is a provision in the policy that states that the school administrators can choose as a reward to the students to do that,” Johnson said, “and I certainly think that we want to celebrate our students, and if that’s an incentive, that’s already built into the policy, though, so that wouldn’t be something that we would have to change. And that wouldn’t necessarily even just be jeans. That could be a complete dress-down day with the top as well, but that is in the policy.”

Sterling said, “I just don’t see it the same, because it’s a reward, and (my recommendation) would be integrated in the day to day.”

Citing examples like raising money for a jean day or doing good on an SOL to get a jean day, Sterling said she was adamantly against that approach in this context.

“I don’t care for it very much, but that’s just my own opinion,” she said. “You have to jump through hoops to be able to wear what you want. (The policy) is in there, but I’m recommending an addition, not to take away.”

Johnson noted that Shelton was asking if there could be a jean day one day a week, and Johnson said the current policy states exceptions to the policy will be determined by the school’s administration and that the administrators can schedule school spirit days.

Johnson said she did not see a problem with every Friday being a school spirit day.

“I don’t necessarily think it would need to be a change to the current policy as it is,” she said.