LACONIA _ Mal Murray remembers school dress code issues from growing up in during the 1950s in Westchester County in New York and how he required special permission to wear “dungarees”, better known today as blue jeans or simply jeans, to high school.
“I used to get up at 4 a.m. and go to work at a dairy farm where I wore dungarees. They weren’t allowed in school because they were considered work clothes. I had to get approval in order to wear them,” said Murray, who is now the chairman of the Laconia School Board.
Murray, who spent 40 years as a math teacher, says that his own views on dress codes have changed over the years, from support for the stricter dress codes of his early years as a teacher in the 1960s to one which reflects a balance between the need of schools for a disciplined learning environment and the rights of students to self expression in their choice of clothing.
After graduating from what was then Plymouth Teachers College in 1963, Murray spent eight years teaching at Brewster Academy, a private school in Wolfeboro, and 14 years at Winnisquam Regional High School in Tilton. He then moved to North Carolina where he taught for 18 more years.
He said that Brewster had strict standards, including collared shirts, neckties, khaki pants and a sport coat. The school also monitored the length of student hair.
“I remember constantly telling one kid he needed a haircut,” Murray sid.
He said that there were times at Winnisquam that he felt appalled at some of the clothing worn by students, but didn’t raise that as an issue because other teachers who told him they felt the same way wouldn’t speak up.
He said that his views have evolved since that time: “I have changed. For years education lagged behind society and was out of touch on the dress-code issue, trying to enforce an outdated standard. I don’t support an anything-goes approach however and think there are common sense standards which should still apply.” he said, emphasizing that he is speaking from his own experience as a teacher and not as chairman of the school board.
The current Laconia High School dress code reads as follows:
“Student dress should not interfere with the rights of others, cause disruption to the educational program, or pose a health or safety hazard. The following will not be allowed: pajamas or slippers, clothing which refers to or suggests anything considered vulgar, obscene or offensive, and/or tobacco, drug/alcohol or weapon related. Hats may be worn in the school building but, individual teachers may request them to be taken off during class time. Finally, clothing must cover the body from armpit to mid-thigh (under garments must be fully covered). Students that violate this policy will be required to change their clothing. Students will not be permitted to wear hoods while in the school building. This is for the safety of all students.”
Both Gilford High School and Inter-Lakes High School have similar policies.
Gilford’s cites examples of apparel not to be worn during the school day, including “caps, hats, and other head gear; tank tops; clothing with offensive, vulgar, or racist language or pictures; tops that do not completely cover the mid-section; clothing that glorifies, encourages or promotes the use of alcohol or drugs.”
Inter-Lakes adopted a new code in 2008 that reads:
"Parents are expected to see that their children are clean, neat and appropriately dressed for school with an emphasis of modesty... Clothing that may prove distracting or offensive to the general school population is unacceptable."
Prohibited is dress that is revealing, containing language that is vulgar or references violence, drugs or alcohol. "General guidelines prohibit shirts that expose the midriff, tube tops or tank tops that have straps smaller than one inch for girls and tank tops for boys. Underwear should not be showing. Skirts and shorts should be of moderate length covering mid-thigh while sitting down."
Sue Allen, who served for 25 years on the Gilford School Board, says her memories of her own high school experiences with dress codes are similar to Murray's.
“You couldn’t wear jeans and shorts had to extend below the knees,” she said.
Allen said she recalls during her time on the board that many parents expressed support for school uniforms, echoing President Bill Clinton’s support during the 1996 campaign for school uniforms.
She said the board’s approach to a dress code policy has evolved over the years and that the board has revisited thc code periodically to see that it remains relevant to student and parental concerns.
Jack Carty, who was a member of the Inter-Lakes School Board when it adopted its current policy in 2008, said that he thinks there is a lot of self-policing by the students themselves when it comes to a dress code.
“They’re looking for acceptance and conforming to the dress code makes that easier,” said Carty.
A watershed in school dress-code law was established in 1969 by the U.S. Supreme Court in a case known as Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent School District. The dispute involved several high school students who wore black armbands to school in a planned protest against the Vietnam War. In a far-reaching decision, the Court essentially decided that schools may limit student expression (such as enforcing dress codes) if there is a legitimate concern that such expression will be disruptive to the learning environment or violate the rights of others.
Today, most states have laws that allow school boards to make dress code rules for students within their district to promote a safe, disciplined school environment, prevent interference with schoolwork and discipline, and to encourage uniformity of student dress. For instance, dress codes that prohibit clothing that is vulgar, obscene or worn in a manner that disrupts school activity are generally permitted – whereas dress codes that censor student expression because educators do not like the message are generally not permitted.