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Manatee schools mulling universal dress code policy

BRADENTON — When leaders in Osceola County’s school district adopted a strict universal dress code policy last school year, they began seeing a decrease in disruptive behavior.

So much so that Manatee County school board members caught wind of it and are considering a similar move here.

School board member Barbara Harvey told fellow members that she learned gang activity decreased by almost half in Osceola’s district, and that school leaders there also saw a drop in student sexual harassment.

Manatee has no district-wide uniform policy — only a dress code that prohibits certain types of clothing including hats, and jeans with cuts, slits or holes above the knee.

Each school’s Student Advisory Council can recommend a uniform policy, but it must be approved by 65 percent of the student body’s parents, said Christine Sket, a SAC member at Williams Elementary.

“At Williams we recommended it three years ago, but not enough parents responded to the vote,” Sket said.

Of the district’s 34 elementary schools, more than half of them require uniforms that allow a choice between four or five shirt- or pant-color options.

But secondary schools are a different story. Johnson Middle School, aside from charter schools, is the only one that requires students to wear a uniform — a shirt with the school logo.

“At the elementary age, there’s more parent support for a uniform because children don’t mind,” said Joe Stokes, district director of elementary schools. “But you get to secondary schools and individual taste becomes important to a child, so the parents don’t generally go for it. That’s why you see one secondary school because it’s much more difficult to get a SAC to recommend it.”

At the district’s magnet schools — Rowlett, GD Rogers and Wakeland elementaries — uniforms are required. At the county’s more than two dozen private schools, some such as Saint Stephens require uniforms.

“Uniforms are important and give every child an equal playing field, because everybody walks in to school dressed the same,” said Wendy Herrera, GD Rogers principal.

She also noted it eliminates the visible differences between needy and wealthy children.

Angie Rodriguez, whose 7-year-old daughter Sierra attends Williams, voted against students wearing a uniform there.

“She used to attend Imagine North Manatee, but we moved her to Williams because she hated the uniforms,” Rodriguez said. There were also other reasons she moved her daughter, she said .

Said Sierra, “I just didn’t like wearing them. I didn’t like that you have to wear the same thing every day and didn’t like some of the colors.”

Brothers Tyler and Dylan Bosso don’t mind the uniforms they wear at Rowlett.

Dylan, 7, said it saves him time when he gets ready for school.

“I like it because it’s easy to get them out of the dryer every day,” he said.

Dylan, 6, simply likes the colors.

Ron Hirst, a principal for 10 years in the district, is currently the administrator at Bashaw Elementary, one of the district’s schools that has a SAC- and parent-approved uniform policy.

“It’s kind of liberal, but it seems to be working very well,” he said.

Prior to Bashaw, he worked at Lincoln, Haile and Nolan middle schools where there was no uniform policy.

At Bashaw, he said he sees fewer discipline issues, and he believes the school uniform might have something to do with it.

“I think it’s a great idea to review other districts’ policies, but it is prudent to make sure a uniform policy would not create a hardship for parents,” Hirst said.

Tony Mirabella, whose daughter is in ninth grade at Braden River High School, welcomes a uniform policy.

“I think it would be good,” he said. “I don’t like pants hanging down low on boys, when their boxers are hanging out. Or the girls showing too much, at that age it’s not appropriate. You go to school to learn anyway, it’s not a fashion show.”

Osceola, Polk dress code

This is the second school year that district officials in Osceola County have had a mandatory dress code.

The school board there requires students to wear uniforms to provide more discipline and to get students more focused on academics, said Osceola County Superintendent Michael Grego. It puts the focus on academics, not fashion, because they project a neat, serious, businesslike image. And schools with dress codes, he said, have fewer discipline problems because students aren’t distracted.

“In our first year we had over 3,000 fewer incidents of disruptive behavior than the previous year, and the only major thing that changed was the implementation of the school uniform policy,” Grego said.

Gang activity in the district decreased approximately 46 percent.

“And principals, at the end of the first year, told school board members about the calmness on the school grounds and how great the kids look,” Grego said.

There, students can choose to wear white or navy blue shirts with a collar including polos, oxfords or dress shirts. Bottoms can be navy or khaki, and pant sizes have to be appropriate to a student’s body size, Grego said.

Every school also can add one or two shirt colors to reflect their school colors.

“When the students and parents found out the policy wasn’t so restrictive, that they can wear blue jeans if they are not torn or faded, they said, ‘We can do this, it’s not that bad,’ ” he said.

Violations have resulted in out-of-school suspensions.

“The parents have been a tremendous partner in this,” Grego said. “It’s easier to get students ready for school and cheaper for them.”

At Manatee School for the Arts, David Cole’s two sons are required to wear uniforms at the charter school.

“It definitely saves money, because you don’t have to compete with the Joneses and sit around and think what’s going to be fashionable for the day,” he said. “And from a security standpoint, you can’t show any gang insignia if you have a uniform on.”

In Polk County, the school board has a mandatory dress code for all elementary and middle school students.

And Polk school board member Hazel Sellers said she’d like to see the policy implemented in all grade levels.

“I personally wish that the original policy had included high school as well,” said Sellers, a retired teacher. “It is a tough decision because there is always strong opposition to uniform policies. The benefit is worth the work, though.”

Lakewood Ranch High School senior Kayla Schappacher dreads the idea.

“I had to wear a uniform at a private school from K-8 grade and it puts a cramp on our individuality,” she said. “I would not like it at all.”

Superintendent Tim McGonegal said he was surprised when Harvey broached the idea.

“I never really thought about it,” he said Tuesday. “But I’m interested in gathering info about it. We already have a decent dress code in place. This would be certainly different to move to a districtwide uniform.”

Board members Walter Miller and Bob Gause said they like the idea.

“The thing that attracts me is the impact on behavior,” Miller said.

No matter the outcome, school leaders say they’ll follow the direction of the school board.

“Whatever the district decides to do, if the district chooses to be more strict with the dress code we will support it full force,” said Braden River High School Assistant Principal Jenny Gillray.