ATLANTIC CITY - Parents and students are complaining the high school's uniform policy has become exactly what it was installed to prevent: a distraction from education.
Violations of the recently amended policy have landed as many as 150 of the school's 2,300 students in in-school suspension, rather than classes, on each of the first five school days, Principal Oscar Torres said at Monday night's school board meeting.
Torres said the policy had improved discipline. He predicted that, "once the dust settles ... two weeks from now, we won't be talking about the dress code."
Judging from the comments from others attending the meeting, that may depend on the school relaxing its approach.
"I'm not buying any more clothes," said Doreen Nicholson, whose daughter Monica earned a suspension for wearing a shirt with five buttons down the middle. The new maximum is three.
"I can't afford it," said Nicholson, standing with her husband, Ted Nicholson. "We're bartenders and waitresses at a casino - we're not doing well."
Besides the button restriction, the new policy bans logos - small insignia were allowed last year - and khaki pants, reducing the choices to black and navy blue.
The board passed its final amendment in mid-August, and several parents said they learned about it well after their back-to-school shopping.
"I cannot keep affording buying new uniforms every year," parent Tina Watson said. "If y'all going to make a policy like this, y'all need to provide students with uniforms."
"It's like going to Catholic school," said another parent, Earlene Williams. "It's too much."
Torres said the policy was publicized on Channel 2 and the district's Web site in June, even before the board passed it. The amendment in August restored navy blue, a traditional school color, as an option for pants.
Gauging whether girls' tops were too revealing, and whether certain blues were too emblematic of gang colors, had taken too much staff time last year, the principal said. Gang-affiliated students even resorted to displaying colors on belts and socks, which prompted a further crackdown this year.
"I think if you walk through the school, you'll see 99 percent of students wearing the right thing," Torres said. "It has been, in my seven years, the best opening we've ever had."
Most people seemed to agree with having a uniform policy but found the current one arbitrary and the mode of enforcement disruptive.
"I don't like the new dress code," sophomore Kayla Kaukeano said during a break in her first meeting as the board's student representative. "It's making me late to my classes."
Students have waited in long lines to enter school each morning, Kaukeano said, as administrators, teachers and security guards check each for clothing compliance. The process is more meticulous than last year, she said.
Simone Hardy said her son was sent home from school for wearing the uniform he wore to school last year. "That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard," she said.
Seniors Brittany Emerson and Dominque Davis said each class period features a public-address announcement reminding teachers to check students' attire.
The school sells $10 uniform shirts, and Torres said they would soon be reduced to $9, which is what they cost the district to make. Those who demonstrate significant financial hardship may get further discounts, and the school is considering a loaner program in which students would wear shirts for the day and turn them over to the home-economics club for laundering, the principal said.
Torres even suggested that students who wear shirts with more than three buttons could cut off the extraneous buttons and sew the shirt closed at the appropriate height.
Monica Nicholson will not be doing that, and she expects to be suspended again. She has only one shirt that conforms to the dress code, she said: "I wore it today. I'm not wearing it tomorrow."
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