As students return to class across the country this week, we revisit an ever-evolving issue that has been part of the public-school dialogue for nearly a century: dress codes. Legally, schools have long had discretion to regulate speech and clothing where it substantially disrupts classroom activities. Non-legally, we’ve lost our minds.
At Wilson Elementary School in Oklahoma City, 5-year-old Cooper Barton wore his University of Michigan Wolverines T-shirt to his elementary school. The principal made him turn it inside out, citing a violation of the school's dress code. Indeed, district policy bars clothing bearing the names or emblems of any collegiate athletic teams. The policy behind the rule? Anti-gang violence. Let that sink in, because I'll come back to it in a minute.
Meanwhile, in neighboring Texas, Brazosport Independent School District is easing up on its dress code and allowing seventh- through 12th-grade males to have facial hair, earrings and hair past their shoulders, and for both genders to display visible tattoos. That's right: If your preteen got illegally tatted, now he can proudly display that gothic lettering on his forearm in algebra class. What does this tale of two schools tell us about our society?
The Oklahoma dress code: One of the central themes of public-school education is college preparation. Under OKC's dress policy, students can't wear the cardinal colors of Stanford University, but if they want to wear a bright-red Angry Birds T-shirt, then go right ahead. Naturally, Angry Birds is the more productive, positive influence, and it encourages kids to aim high in life. Wait, I got the two mixed up. This dress code sacrifices a lot of good to defend against a narrower potential evil. Sadly, I might prefer this scheme to the Texas dress code.
The Texas dress code: I'm so glad our schools are committed to letting our little snowflakes express their precious inner artists with earrings, facial hair and visible tattoos. Policies like those will ensure a fresh population of young adults focused less on education (no college T-shirts) and more on clever tribal symbols permanently etched on their biceps, or maybe Instagram photos of their new piercings. Because if there's one thing that's in short supply today in America, it's narcissistic, frustrated, unemployed young adults. Hey, at least that school dress code allowed them to express their individuality at an early age, right? The important thing is that our schools are focused on stamping out the greater evils, like a first-grader with a Notre Dame turtleneck. Heaven forbid. Mission (not) accomplished, America.
-- Attorney Danny Cevallos, of Philly-based Cevallos & Wong, also writes for Metro.us.
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