educationvirtual children by Scott Warnock

Can NJ’s worst-dressed school board member competently decide on a dress code?

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I’m a member of two school boards: I was elected to Riverton’s BoE and am an appointed member of Palmyra’s BoE. (Riverton is a sending district for Palmyra High School.) One of my favorite logical fallacies is ad hominem. Could these different bits of information cohere? We’ll see.

A hot topic lately at PHS has been the dress code. Since 2008, Palmyra has had a “Uniform Dress Code” policy (the policy was revised in 2013). The core of the four-page guideline is that students should have a kind of neat, “work casual” look; for instance, khaki-type pants and shirts that are collared, logoless, and one of three solid colors: red, black, or white.

I remember thinking this was good when it was discussed in 2013. At the time, I even thought there was a buzz that many public schools might be moving in this direction and we at PHS were on the cutting edge. As a student in my days at Berlin Community School and Eastern High School, I never had a uniform policy, but the idea of this neat, no-stress general look seemed smart.

Well, it’s a few years later, and most public schools do not have uniforms. But a few months ago, at a Palmyra BoE meeting, an articulate, smart, charismatic high school student named Johnny Kay stepped up to the podium and delivered the first of several compelling speeches about the shortcomings of our dress code. In a careful refutation of the policy’s supposed benefits, he made it clear that the code should be rescinded or changed significantly. His ultimate point, which he emphasized last month by bringing forward a number of well-dressed, pleasant-looking students who were in reality still attired in ways — some quite subtle — that violated the policy, was simple: PHS students, faculty, and staff do not need a uniform dress code to have a well-run, academically serious, socially enjoyable environment.

During the course of these meetings, the uniform issue turned into a good grassroots movement. Spurred by Kay’s comments, the topic was discussed and the district sent out a Web survey. People got to weigh in and give their opinion.

Again, I initially thought a mild uniform was fine. I guess I felt it would help students, maybe making preparations for school easier. I remembered in high school keeping this crazy list of what I wore (okay, it was crazy list #43 of hundreds of crazy lists I have kept) so I made sure I wouldn’t wear my, uh, green, long-sleeved Adidas shirt with the white Lee corduroys twice in the same week. A dress code would have saved me from such garment-centric journaling.

But, overwhelmingly, Palmyra students, staff, and their parents have not voiced support for the code. Including some who live close to me, maybe even in the same house, the vast majority say they don’t want or need a uniform. Some wonder what they are going to do with all their solid red, black, and white shirts and khakis and others are okay with a relaxed dress code as long as it doesn’t include hoodies, but the will of the people is clear: No more uniforms.

Sitting behind the BoE table, I was struck by the many people who came out to give thoughtful opinions about this topic. They care about the school. I also see this topic as a great example of students having a chance to make a difference through democratic, communicative action-type processes. On those grounds alone, I’m supportive of change.

But, really, how could I say otherwise? In this video, which should be titled “Worst-dressed board member in NJ listens to testimony about uniform policy,” I sit listening to people talk about this topic while garbed in a crummy sweat pants and sweat shirt. Some might say: How can this rumpled man to judge the raiment of others?

But, you see, I have wrestling practice until 7:00 and the BoE starts at 7:00. I go right from one to the other without time to change from my wrestling coach costume to my school board costume. So judge me not. Clothes may not make the man. I do my best in both volunteer roles despite my meager trappings.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.
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10 Responses to “Can NJ’s worst-dressed school board member competently decide on a dress code?”

  1. Oh, how we have been down this road before…

  2. Kind sir:
    When said video (linked above) appeared on the Burlington County Times website, there was concern as to what the reporter would choose to include. Surprisingly, it was not as skewed as some may have feared and showed much of the calm, educated demeanor that you eloquently described tonight.
    but,
    (Of course there is a but) oh, how I smiled when I saw that the vantage point of the reporter unfortunately included the representative from Riverton in such a disheveled light! It truly caught my eye, partly because the reporter asked me for my name & the name of the mother that spoke before me. This panicked me, because I was not having the most fashionable of days, since I was coming from work and a Girl Scout meeting. I did choose to wear jeans and a ‘dress hoodie,’ that is, a fashion shirt with a hood (specifically for this meeting-on purpose) I WAS THRILLED when I saw that I was not on screen, and thrilled that they didn’t catch my good friend eating cake!
    I’d like the public out there to know that the guy to the left of the podium was not looking upward because he is unable to see the person at the podium from his seat. I’d also like them to know that the sweats and posturing are the “uniform” of a dedicated dad who is truly a “community builder.”
    What a privilege it has been to see that student articulate his objections and proposals from that first meeting in the fall. Although I didn’t mind the uniforms for the past 6 years as much as some others, Johnny’s well-researched speech made me want it to go away that much more in order for the students to see that their voices CAN be heard. I would also like to see that the students get to realize that a board member can be in sweats in the winter (and fall) and a tie on other months; that clothes don’t always make the man/woman; and that it always pays to brush your hair before a public meeting.
    There is a way to follow a dress code without the strict guidelines of a uniform. Most kids make their own “uniforms” anyway, they end up with their go-to items (green adidas, dr. who blue, or a dress & cowboy boots) that they wear more frequently and that expresses their own style.
    In the end, Mr. Warnock, “we see them as we want to see them (and ourselves): in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But, what (they will) find out is that each one of us is: a brain . . . And an athlete . . . And a basket case . . .A princess . . . (a mom . . .a coach) And a (non-hoodie-wearing) criminal!” (Obviously, I love an opportunity to quote the Breakfast Club)

  3. One of the greatest lessons my own father gave me was that if i happened to find myself in a setting where my clothing was not appropriate, then to continue to act as if I did belong and was dressed appropriately. It taught me that as at any point in life, it is our actions and how we treat other people, not how we look that matters.
    My son has been given that same lesson from his coach – it didn’t matter what the look was, the actions have always spoken loudest to him.

  4. Scott, You were there in your uniform, your work clothes. If the band director had come right off the field with his rows of buttons and epaulettes, no one could have faulted him. If a math teacher had come in with frayed jacket with spurts of chalk dust on his lower back, no one could have faulted him. If the home ec teacher (do they still teach home ec? am I revealing my age here? shop?) you get the drift.

    In my day (perhaps I should say, in my geological epoch), dress codes were quite simple: girls had to wear skirts or dresses that would touch the floor if they went down on their knees in front of the prinicpal, guys could not wear cowboy boots, blue jeans, or shirts without buttons and collars. We were at cold war with the Russkies and we could do no less to show our solidarity with the patriotic effort. End of story.

    Don Riggs

  5. Only you could so seamlessly insert the term garment-centric journaling as if it’s a normal practice.

  6. Darn, and I was using PHS Dress Code Policy as a reason for us here in Delran to move to one that was similar! Of course, we put out a survey (that included a ton of other items) but dress code was one of them and most of the students don’t want one; however, there were a few students who would love a uniform so they didn’t have to “think” about what they were wearing! We won’t see any changes here and I am sorry PHS will be changing because your dress code policy did make the students all look so nice and neat. Where to draw the line with the “relaxed” dress code will be your biggest problem. Good luck and I personally liked your “relaxed” look at the board meeting!!

  7. Warnock the gray- the author wants to be called. Wow tell the little bastards to learn something and don’t worry about the uniforms, there’s 1.5 billion Indians and 3 billion chinamen looking to kick their asses.

  8. I vote for a dress code! More time would be spent on what one learns..not how one looks…(sorry, Elizabeth

  9. How has no one yet blamed Obama? You’re slipping, people.

  10. Henry has a point!
    Damn that Obama!
    He’s probably too busy conspiring with Hillary on what emails to delete…..

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