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Copyright © 2003 Express Publishing Inc.
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Friday — February 13, 2004


Raising their arms, a group of Wood River High School girls demonstrates how everyone’s midriff shows in apparent violation of the school’s dress code. Express photo by David N. Seelig


Students sit-in to protest dress code

Express Staff Writer

Teens sitting on the floor of a Wood River High School hallway Thursday, Feb. 12, were not protesting a war, but were demonstrating for what they felt is their right to self-expression.

Due to a recent crackdown on dress code violations, students gathered in a sunny upstairs hallway of the school, sitting out the day’s classes.

At the end of last week, students had been warned that the dress code would be strictly enforced as of Monday, Feb. 9. By Wednesday, 45 "referrals" had been issued. Each time a student was sent to the office with a referral from a teacher, they were given a large, green T-shirt emblazoned with the words "Dress for Success" to put on for the remainder of the day.

The dress code of the Blaine County School District was not strongly enforced during the first five months of the school year, WRHS Principal Graham Hume said.

À la 1968, Patrick Bussa serenades the girls participating in the sit it protesting the Wood River High School dress code. From left, Samantha Tapia, Jackie Moore and Chandin Persaud. Express photo by David N. Seelig

Because of a murder investigation that involved a student, "we made a conscious decision to let the dress code take a back seat." But in November after the school district did "360s" at each school, it was suggested that the staff at WRHS enforce the dress code.

These 360s refer to yearly visits by district administrators who, based on their findings, ask for adjustments where needed.

The district’s dress code calls for all students to wear clean, loose fitting clothing as opposed to skin-tight attire. Tops and pants must meet with a no-skin-showing requirement even when arms are raised, a person is seated, or bent over. Sunglasses, caps and hoods can not be worn in the school or on school property until school is dismissed. Gang related attire is prohibited, as are any clothing, jewelry or accessory item with writing or pictures that are vulgar, profane, prejudicial or promote illegal activities.

At 8:30 a.m. Thursday, Hume spoke briefly with the students participating in the sit-in. He said they would have unexcused absences, though not truancies. They also would not be permitted to make up the missed school day. Many of the girls were doing homework anyway amidst a clutter of backpacks, snacks and magazines.

One of the two organizers of the protest, Cait O’Connell, said Ketchum Mayor Ed Simon was their legal advisor.

"We have the right to protest. We’ve done the research," she said.

The group had several sightseers—other students who came by on the way to classes—as well as two freshman boys from a multi-media class, who were videotaping the sit-in.

Two boys sat down and joined the ranks of the girls who have been cited most often. Midriffs and cleavage skin showing are the most common reasons girls are given referrals.

One girl said she had a jacket on and was told by a teacher to take it off to check for visible skin and then was sent to the office.

The other organizer of the protest, Jessica Owen, said many of the girls are annoyed with the new degree of strictness in code enforcement.

"When we get called down to the office, there are three options we’re supposed to be given: Go home, put on the T-shirt or go to our locker to find something of our own to put on," Owen said. "They haven’t been giving us those. Just the shirt. If we don’t return it, we’re charged $20."

"All my clothes are against the dress code," another girl said. "I can’t afford to buy new ones."

Students pointed out pictures of girls in the teen and fashion magazines littered about that showed lots of midriff. This is the fashion of their day, they argued.

Despite the fact that Hume had agreed to the sit-in, one language arts teacher, Tim Neville, came over to talk to one of his students. "Get in my class," he said pointing his finger down the hall. She refused.

Two sophomores, Jackie Moore, a slight girl in a baggy shirt, and Samantha Tapia in a flannel shirt sat together off to one side.

"I was going to wear a muumuu today," Moore said. Another girl added, "How about a poncho."

Moore said she’d been given a referral when she’d worn a black T-shirt covered by a white turtleneck with a slit in the center.

"They said it brought attention to my breasts," she said.

"It’s not as if we were walking around in just our bras," freshman Rachel Riemann said. "We do have clothes on."

In the WRHS office, Hume considered the situation with a degree of tolerance and amusement.

"It’s pretty straight forward," he said. "Originally it was about shirts and pants meeting (at the belt line). But Victoria’s Secret came out with thongs and now they think it’s cool for them to be seen above the pants. Most kids dress fine. For the vast majority, it’s no big deal.

"The bottom line is no one should feel uncomfortable in the classroom. If a girl has a low cut top and a teacher needs to help her at her desk, it’s uncomfortable," he said. "I’ve watched kids for years and have no issue with self expression unless it’s unsafe or makes someone uncomfortable. Now with sexual harassment out there, we can’t afford to not pay attention."

Samantha Tapia and Jackie Moore listen as teacher Tim Neville orders Moore back to class during a school sit-in Thursday. Express photo by David N. Seelig


Hume sent a memo to all staff members last week explaining the situation and instructing the teachers to "go through it with students, talk about consequences and answer questions."

Last fall, when some kids complained about not being able to wear hats and hoods at school, even outside, they discussed it with Hume and a committee made up of students, staff and Hume. The rule was amended to say that when school was dismissed for the day they were allowed to wear hats and hoods outside.

"The kids felt good that someone had listened. It’s one of the reasons we have kids on that committee. They always have a chance to redress it."

Civil disobedience is fine, he added. "But they need to pick and choose, whether it is or isn’t reasonable. Is it a viable reason to protest?"

He said the staff was informed that if the kids wanted to join the sit-in, they could, and that they could go back to class. "We have to honor the fact that they have a right to do it. It’s OK."


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