Lara Ellingson

Lara Ellingson, a board member, asked if T-shirts with political views would be allowed; yes, she was told. 

As they begin a new school year next month, Mesa Public Schools students likely will have to abide by a new dress code.

The goal: “To ignite a culture of learning and well-being.”

The MPS Governing Board was presented a draft of a new policy and new regulations covering student dress last month and are poised to vote on them Tuesday, July 13.

Presenters told the board 90 percent of dress code violators are girls and that they hope the policy will give clear directions on what is prohibited in order to reduce violations –  and resulting missed class time.

Board member Lara Ellingson told presenters she wanted to clear up some misconceptions she heard from the public, especially that the general policy was available to the public before the board’s June 22 meeting, but not the more specific regulations.

“I want to make sure a boy can’t show up to Science class in a Speedo (tight bathing suit) and a girl in a bikini,” Ellingson said.

Mike Rapier, principal of Poston Junior High and part of the committee that crafted the dress code proposal, acknowledged he heard a concern “about a no-dress-code dress code.”

Such was not the case, he noted: “Regulations call for a top and bottom … and all private body parts must be covered.”

The regulations also include language covering on the popular hooded sweatshirts called “hoodies.” 

“Headwear, including but not limited to hats, hoodies and bandanas are permitted in school buildings. All headwear must allow the ears and face to be visible and not interfere with the line of sight to any student or staff (except clothing/headwear worn for religious or medical purposes).”

 Lisa Cannon, principal of Falcon Hill Elementary, noted this could be a challenge, as teachers sometimes use “hat day” or “hoodie day” as incentives.

And, she gave a reasonable excuse for hiding under a hoodie: Bad haircut.

“They just want to hide for a week until that bad haircut grows out,” she said.

The district’s general “student dress and grooming standards” was adopted in 2006. Specific regulations were put in place the same year, then updated in 2015. 

It was also updated last year to reflect mask policies put in place during the pandemic.

This is a major revision.

“What we’re hoping to have brought to you is a dress code that’s more modern and more permissive about also a good balance for our students’ health and success in school and our need to maintain that productive learning environment,” Kacey Gregson, the district’s general counsel, told the board.

Board member Kiana Sears stressed, “The lens and perspective we’re working on is bias … We have to go back and emphasize, ‘How do we keep kids learning and keeping the least amount of disruption in our classrooms?’”

She said she was concerned about “kids being pulled out of classrooms for arbitrary judgements.”

The board received a draft from a committee of high school and elementary principals that studied the current dress code “through the lens of student learning and well-being as well as looking through the lens of inclusivity,” Rapier said.

“We wanted to make sure they felt inclusive and safe and come to school ready to learn,” he added.

Ellingson asked about “political shirts –  how is that going to be handled?”

“That’s a big question,” responded Gregson, the district attorney.

She noted the U.S. Supreme Court has made specific rulings on school dress codes, with the goal of “balancing First Amendment freedom of speech with a school’s obligation to maintain a safe environment.

“Students have rights to express their political beliefs,” she added.

“As a general matter, if a student wanted to wear a T-shirt promoting a specific candidate, that would be allowed.”

Lisa Edwards, a member of the public, demanded to have more specifics after reading the policy draft.

“I did have a concern about hate speech. Who determines that? One group thinks something is hate speech, another group doesn’t. We need to be careful who determines that,” Edwards said. “You can’t decide one comment is racially charged, insensitive. It can’t be arbitrary.”

Cameron Smith also asked for “more specificity.”

Some key parts of the regulation, which was not available to the community until after the meeting, are:

• “Students must wear clothing including a top and a bottom (such as pants, skirt, shorts or the equivalent), or a one-piece outfit (such as a dress or jumpsuit) and footwear as required by state law. 

• “Tops and one-piece outfits must be secured with a strap or straps at the shoulders or neck. Clothing must have material that covers the front, back and sides. 

• “Clothing fabric must cover all private body parts and/or undergarments and must not be see-through. 

• “Undergarment waistbands and/or bra straps that are incidentally visible under clothing are permitted; however, undergarments may not be worn as clothing. 

• “Clothing may not cover a student’s face to the extent that the student is not identifiable (except clothing worn for health and safety, medical, or religious purposes.) 

• “Footwear such as shoes, sandals or boots shall be worn in the school buildings. Footwear must be both safe and non-destructive to school property.

• “Reasonable variations from these requirements may be permitted by a building principal to accommodate student participation in approved activities such as for physical education classes (e.g., swimming), other student activities (e.g., student theatrical productions), or for schools where uniforms are required.”

Among the prohibitions:

“Students shall not be permitted to wear the following: 

“1. Any clothing, jewelry or personal items that advocate or promote violence or acts of terror. 

“2. Any clothing, jewelry or personal items with images or language depicting or advocating the use of alcohol, tobacco products, nicotine, sexual references, nudity, profanity, obscenity, unlawful use of weapons, and/or controlled or illegal drugs. 

“3. Any clothing, jewelry or personal items that use or depict hate speech or that target groups based on sex, age, race, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, creed, marital status, parental status, homelessness, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, gender non-conformity, physical, mental, emotional or learning disability, or any other legally-protected status or classification. 

“4. Any clothing, jewelry or personal items that threaten the health or safety of any other student or staff member.”

Information: mpsaz.org. ν

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