Sunday, April 29, 2018 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews
Featured image: Students at Proviso West in 2014, the year students across D209 were required to wear uniforms. | District 209
Four years after students at Proviso Township High Schools District 209 were required to wear uniforms of polos and khakis, the monotony is out the door, driven off largely by what many adults in the district have described as a very disciplined, student-led rebellion against the uniform policy.
During a regular meeting on April 10, the D209 school board unanimously voted to ditch part of a board policy that required students to “wear the uniform prescribed in the Student Handbook on all days in which school is in session, with certain exceptions.”
Starting next school year, students’ wardrobes will no longer be exclusive to long- and short-sleeve knit polos without logos (only black, white or school colors acceptable); plain khaki skirts, with knee-length hems, for girls; flat or pleated khaki trousers for either gender.
Instead, the new policy on student appearance will only require that dress and grooming “not disrupt the educational process, interfere with the maintenance of a positive teaching/learning climate, or compromise reasonable standards of health, safety, and decency.”
The policy change came after mounting student complaints about how staff and faculty at Proviso East, Proviso West and Proviso Math and Science Academy were enforcing the uniform policy and how the policy may run counter to the district’s commitments to equity and social justice.
According to a 2014 article in the Forest Park Review, the uniform policy had been designed to “combat perceptions of gang-affiliated clothing and colors” and to decrease various other distractions related to student appearance.
Less than five years later, however, students complain that the measure has devolved into a tool to perpetuate “racism, classism and sexism,” according to one Proviso East senior who had a hand in crafting the new dress code policy.
Although the 2014 uniform policy came about after a rigorous, months-long vetting process by a committee that included four students (one each from East and West and two from PMSA), and the input of thousands of students and community members through focus groups and an online survey, its undoing was the result of students who, after years of complaining, drafted an alternative dress code policy largely of their own making.
“This was not a priority for the board,” said D209 board member Nathan Wagner during the April 10 meeting.
“The only reason this happened was because of the students. The students said we don’t want uniforms, we want a dress code,” Wagner said. “They weren’t just complaining. They came up with a solution — an excellent solution and they were part of this process.”
According to a memo about the policy change drafted by district officials, two groups of students “engaged in study and discussion of the student uniform and dress code issues during the current school year.”
Those students included “members of the Superintendent’s Student Advisory Board and a group of students from Proviso East who have been studying the uniform and dress code issue as part of their work in English classes taught by Ms. Ashley Avila, which are also part of the Competency Based Education pilot at Proviso East.”
The students met with staff members to discuss how the dress code tied to the larger issues of school climate and safety, district officials stated.
“In general, the students were interested in ensuring that such discretion was consistently and fairly utilized. The students understood, however, that room for administrative discretion is needed,” officials said in the memo.
“All participants agreed that a key element to successfully achieving compliance would be to teach students about and encourage a standard of ‘dressing for success,'” they added, “rather than focusing solely on what they were not allowed to wear.”
According to a draft of the proposed policy, the new dress code will prohibit some articles of clothing that are already banned, including short skirts, sagging pants and crop tops. Things like flip flops, cleated shoes, hats, shower caps and night caps will also remain prohibited.
Alex Gomez, a Proviso East sophomore and member of the student advisory board, said during the April 10 meeting that he and his peers believe that a transition from a uniform requirement to a dress code will prompt deeper dialogues about style standards.
“We understand the need for a dress code, but we also believe that it’s just as important to talk to students about why they follow a certain standard of dress instead of focusing on what they can and cannot wear,” Gomez said.
Board member Rodney Alexander was so impressed by the students’ work that he voted for the policy change even though he supports the uniform policy.
“I’m 110 percent uniform but because of the adult-like, board-like work [the students] have done, you have to yield to their expressions and their education process and their ability to communicate and put this argument together,” Alexander said. “They’ve pretty much won the argument.”
The new dress code policy language is now headed to the desks of district administrators as they prepare the 2018-19 student handbook, which will be presented to the school board for approval later this year before it’s published. VFP
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