By ELISE FRANCO
A more strict dress code may become a reality for pupils at Austintown Fitch High and Austintown Middle by the 2009-10 school year.
AUSTINTOWN — Will pupils at Austintown Fitch High and Austintown Middle schools be allowed to wear jeans next school year?
Only time — and the district’s dress code committee — will tell.
Austintown Superintendent Doug Heuer said the committee’s job is to survey other districts’ dress codes to decide what works best.
“The committee is looking into a limited dress code, which allows quite a bit of choice, so it’s not like having to wear a uniform,” he said. “It just narrows it down a little bit more.”
Heuer said the committee, appointed by the board of education, is made up of board members, teachers and administrators, as well as parents.
The implementation of what districts call a “limited dress code” may help reduce classroom distractions and aid in the learning process, he said.
“Particularly in the seventh- and eighth-grade and high school levels, we are dealing with distraction issues,” Heuer said. “Kids want to make a personal statement, and sometimes that detracts from the educational experience.”
Chris Berni, Austintown Middle principal and committee chairman, said some of those distractions include skirts or shorts that are too short, jeans that rest too low on the hips and shirts that are too revealing.
He said a new code will still allow pupils to show individuality.
Berni said the idea isn’t something that’s come about in a matter of a few weeks. Interest began in March of the 2007-08 school year, and the committee was formed soon after.
“We knew for a fact that there was no way we’d be able to implement this in [2008-09], and we wouldn’t be doing families justice by putting something together that quickly,” Berni said. “We didn’t want to rush through this. This process is too important, and we want to get it right.”
According to state law, parents must be given at least six months notice before a school dress code can go into effect. So the committee will present the revised code to the board in December, Berni said.
If the board accepts the proposal, the spring semester will be used to educate parents and pupils on the new code.
“We will hold fashion shows and parent meetings so that prior to the end of this year they’re informed and have seen it on kids who have modeled the clothing,” he said.
Berni said a limited dress code will give pupils “freedom within a framework,” because there will still be some clothing options.
“Right now, nothing is definitive, but we’ve been looking at Lowellville schools and Reynoldsburg, out of Franklin County in Columbus,” he said. “They already have something in place, and they have something that we’re very interested in.”
Under a new dress code, forbidden fashions might include jeans and clothing with large logos or advertisements.
“Students will be wearing slacks or cargo pants, and they’ll have three solid colors to choose from, four solid color options for shirts,” Berni said. “Students won’t be limited to just long or short-sleeved polo shirts.”
Berni said families will still be able to buy clothing at any store as long as the fashions meet the new guidelines, and help will be provided for pupils unable to afford the cost of new clothes.
“Without a doubt, financial assistance will be provided for those who meet that criteria,” he said.
Jon Perkins, 17, a senior at Austintown Fitch, said he wouldn’t be opposed to a dress code crackdown.
“I think in some cases it’s necessary, because some students abuse the privileges,” he said. “But then it’s a matter of us wanting to be able to wear what we want to wear.”
Perkins said he thinks a more strict dress code might cut back on the inappropriate skirts he often sees while walking through the halls.
“I’ve seen some really low skirts, and holey jeans,” he said. “Sometimes it’s just disturbing.”
Freshman Laura Green said a new dress code might cost some pupils their individuality.
“You just want to be able to express yourself, and [a new code] will keep us from being able to do that,” she said.
Green said she’s already feeling the backlash of some recent dress code changes.
“We’re not supposed to wear zip-up hoodies anymore,” she said. “I used to wear them all the time last year.”
Pupils aren’t the only ones unsure about a revised dress code.
Some Austintown parents decided to join the committee because they wanted more facts.
“I can’t say that I 100-percent supported it when I started, but I listened to the information that we were given, because I, like a lot of people in the community, heard things,” Kelly Phillips, PTA member said. “I wanted to be part of the solution.”
Phillips said that after discussions with other parents and committee members, she’s confident the intention is not to make every pupil look exactly the same.
“There’s a huge difference between uniforms and just restricting the dress code,” she said.
To Phillips, the most important thing is her child’s education.
“[My son] wears jeans every day, and he will be devastated if they take them away, but if this is going to level the playing field in terms of education, you have to decide what’s really important at the end of the day,” she said. “I am more concerned about the education and safety of my child than what they are wearing.”