School uniforms don't make sense in Cape public schools

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Remember the smoking ban debate last year?

Some anti-smoking activists petitioned to put a measure on the ballot here in Cape Girardeau that would have banned smoking in public places. They claimed that secondhand smoke put patrons and employees in harm's way, and that it should not be allowed.

Then a vocal group mounted a furious argument for maintaining their individual rights to run their businesses as they see fit. That smoking was a legal act and a ban would be discrimination. That a ban would hurt their business' bottom line. They also asserted that a ban could open Pandora's box, and that the next step could be to ban any number of things that you might like to protect the Greater Good. Your cheeseburgers and cellphones might be next on the no-no list.

If you recall, the Cape Girardeau community at the ballot box decided that individual rights trumped public health risks.

I recall the smoking ban debate now, as another rights issue is brewing in Cape Girardeau. It appears the Cape Girardeau School District is considering a strict dress code that would allow two types of shirts in four colors, controlling everything from belt colors to logos. To be fair, this topic is only in committee and would need approval by the school board.

The committee has been tasked to make recommendations on the dress code policy. The committee driving the recommendations does not have parent or student representation. The committee sought input from parents but did not implement that input into the recommendation.

Educators say certain clothing causes distractions and bullying in school and it takes away from the education children are there to receive.

Fair enough, I guess. I can buy that. Some of it.

I think it's reasonable that there be dress code standards. I've no problem with demanding longer skirts and attire that is not suggestive or supports violence or gang activity. To me, a code is responsible; a strict uniform policy is overkill.

I have a 14-year-old son. I have to fight him almost every morning on what he's wearing, mainly because he doesn't care much about how his clothes look. He's about comfort rather than style, so he often trots off to school in shorts or sweats, a T-shirt and tennies; nothing inappropriate.

There is no uniform policy in Jackson. At least not yet, but I fear it's only a matter of time before it follows Scott City and Cape Girardeau down the cattle trail.

It would be easier for me as a parent if the school had a uniform policy. No arguing in the morning. No fussing over what to buy at the store. Here's your Oxford, here's your polo. Your khakis. And there you go.

But who says parenting should be easy, and why is that driving the discussion? My primary goal isn't to find ways to make parenting easier. Nor should making things easier be the primary goal of an educator. My goal is to raise my children to be upstanding and intelligent individuals who treat others with respect.

I believe much of what's wrong with our education system today focuses on the herd vs. individual mentality.

Republicans, I'm talking to you now. Do you believe in individual rights? Less government interference? Do you believe that an upstanding teenage girl who would like to wear an appropriate dress to school should no longer be able to do so? Ladies, do you believe in any concept where the way you dress can help with your self-confidence? Should a student with such a viewpoint be punished because others do not have that same dress? Do you believe that a teenage boy shouldn't be allowed to wear the color blue because it is against school policy?

What about a shirt that expresses a person's religious faith? Under the proposed policy, a student would have to ask a public official to have so much as a religious emblem on his orange, black, gray or white shirt. If you are one who believes a student should have the right to pray at school, shouldn't you also support his ability to express his religious views on his clothing?

What about the free market? Will this decision hinder sales of bluejeans and T-shirts at area stores?

Liberals, you're not off the hook, either. Do you believe in a public government policy where an individual is not allowed to express appreciation for his or her own culture? The way you dress is part of your culture. Does this proposed policy promote civility among diverse populations, or will it reinforce "the man is keeping me down" mentality?

A few years ago a Jackson student captured the national spotlight when he was not allowed to wear a kilt to a school dance. Roughly 1,600 people signed an online petition demanding the school apologize. I wonder what those people will think when the school's officials decide to ban a plaid shirt?

Here's a question: What about cars? Perhaps some would argue that all students be required to ride the bus, since some students can't afford cars and this could lead to bullying or distractions. Maybe all girls should be forced to wear ponytails because some girls can't afford the more expensive hair products or go to nice salons. What about makeup? Shoes? We can't have someone going around with green shoelaces. Think of the distractions.

As the smoking ban opponents would argue, let's ban cheeseburgers and lollipops! Where does it stop?

A public school uniform policy does not seem consistent with this community's political values. The school district has a job to do, and the fine teachers and administrators are trying to remove obstacles to make their very tough jobs a little easier. I understand where the educators are coming from; I know the social challenges they face. I just disagree with the direction this is heading.

When I was in school, I cared about the name brand of shoes I wore. We all did. I can't describe how I felt the day I wore my first pair of Air Jordans, a prize my not-so-well-off parents gave me for working my tail off for straight A's. Meanwhile, my best friend's parents couldn't afford Nikes. He often wore ill-fitting clothes and went long periods without haircuts. But you know what? The guy made me laugh. We played ball together, went to the same church, got in and out of trouble together, and we had a great friendship based on our interests and beliefs. His clothing didn't matter to me at all. Not one bit. And you know what? He liked me even though I got a nice pair of shoes.

That's how it should be.

Did I see bullying? Sure I did. I remember one girl who was teased relentlessly because she couldn't wear denim due to an allergy. I don't believe for one minute that girl was bullied because of her clothing. She was bullied because she was timid and easy prey because of her personality. I've seen students bullied because they were new to a school. Or because they were fat, or different. Go to YouTube and do a search for bullying. The personal stories will make you cry. But clothing isn't the problem, folks. There's much more serious issues at the core.

Instead of teaching lessons on materialism or acceptance or bigotry or about how everyone should be treated with respect, we're trying to force behavior with oxfords and khakis. Instead of enforcing rules of appropriateness based on skirt length, we're telling girls what color polos and leggings to wear. Culture? Who needs it. Choice? Doesn't matter. Let's make it easier for the grown-ups.

That doesn't seem like what Cape Girardeau stands for.

Bob Miller is the editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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