By Chris Lane
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Chas was hardly alone in his disenchantment. He started wearing his jumpsuit after 300 students walked out of classes at Alvin High on January 28, 1999, to protest the district's rigid dress code. He and 119 other students were arrested and charged with disrupting classes. (Other students received probation and community service. Chas was the only one to request a jury trial, and the charges against him were later dropped.) Afterward, he joined a school committee to amend the dress code.
"But then Columbine went down," he says, and the principal scrapped the committee's recommendations. Alvin Independent School District went in the opposite direction, adopting a standardized dress code in March 2000.
Disgusted, Chas opted for homeschooling and has since earned his GED. But his siblings remain in district schools, and his mother has continued to fight its dress code. In January, two years after the mass protest, an administrative law judge denied a request by the parents -- Margaret and Charles Davis -- for an exemption. Backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, Margaret Davis says she will appeal to a state district court.
The Alvin ISD code allows for only four styles of shirts in several solid colors and cotton pants, shorts and skirts in black, navy or khaki. Denim and logos are banned. Tattoos must be covered, and boys cannot wear earrings or have long hair. Families can file for waivers, based on philosophical or religious reasons.
Davis filed exemptions for her three children in the district, arguing that the policy violated her parenting philosophy and her family's belief in individual freedom. Davis, a card-carrying member of the ACLU, says she has followed the philosophy of "loving guidance" from La Leche League during her 17 years as a parent, which means setting guidelines but letting children make their own decisions.
"This is the simplest form of personal choice," Davis says. "If we don't stand up for the simplest form of individual freedom, then they'll take more and more away from us .It's as if they're trying to mold little robots."
After her requests were denied at the campus and district levels, she appealed to the school board, which rejected her request in September. Davis took her appeal to the Texas Education Agency, which set a hearing before an administrative judge.
Under state statute, if a school district requires uniforms, it must provide exemptions for students who have bona fide religious or philosophical objections. Districts that have dress codes -- rather than requiring uniforms -- are not legally required to provide an opt-out provision.
Jay Jacobson, former head of the Texas ACLU, says the organization has no position on the issue of school uniforms. But the ACLU believes that the school district is refusing to honor its own policy of allowing philosophical exemptions to its dress code. He believes Davis met all the district's requirements in her effort to gain a waiver.
"They [school district authorities] characterize the Davis's [sic] objections as based on the merit of the dress code, that is, its utility, rather than any philosophical objection," Jacobson wrote in a brief. He also noted that AISD board president Bill Wofford has stated that he doesn't even know what a legitimate philosophical objection to the dress code would be.
The district argued that its policy of standardized dress did not constitute a requirement to wear uniforms.
In January, Judge Christopher Maska sided with the district. He ruled that since the dress code does not technically require uniforms, the TEA has no jurisdiction to determine if the school district violated its own policy. Jacobson argued in written briefs that AISD's dress code was actually a mandate to wear uniforms.
"Their position is that when it allows for variation of color of shirts and pants, when there is a variance, it is not a uniform," Jacobson says. "I think that's splitting hairs, frankly."
Nine other families have requested exemptions on philosophical grounds; all were denied. A dozen families have requested exemptions for religious reasons, or for handicapped children who cannot button or zip clothes. Those were approved.
Clark Roberts, executive director for administrative services at AISD, says Davis only voiced a personal choice and that philosophical differences must be rooted in culture.
"An example might be a sarong that has been worn by the student that had a cultural background in this mode of dress and moved into the district," he says. "Some religious sects also adopt that mode of dress, but I'm talking from a cultural standpoint."
The Davis children have complied with the standardized dress but still have racked up infractions. Allen got in trouble in high school for wearing pants with a side-pocket tag that was orange -- a banned color under the code. Katie, who is in the sixth grade, got cold and violated a ban on wearing jackets in the classroom. She was pulled out of class for wearing jeans-style pants and for shoes that were half an inch too tall. Katie also came dressed in a shirt with a painted message: "Worn by force, not by choice."
Students who violate the code are given three warnings. After that, they must serve in-school suspension. If a student continues to disobey the code, the additional breaches are considered insubordination and the student will be transferred to an alternative school program, Roberts says.
Davis says her children have been good students but have now missed class time for minor dress code problems. Students who forget their belts are made to wear rope or ribbon instead, she says, and she is concerned that teachers spend too much time policing instead of teaching.
"How is not wearing a belt going to prevent you from being educated?" she says.
Roberts declined to comment on how standardized dress improved academics, saying only that the school board had its reasons but that he didn't know what they were.
Meanwhile, Davis says the district is picking on her family. AISD police slapped her with a criminal trespass warning after she visited Alvin High School to turn in her exemption. She stopped on her way to the principal's office to talk to some students who did not know they could apply for an exemption. So she gave them a copy of her own.
On Monday last week, she withdrew Katie from AISD, too.
"It was a hard decision, since my other ones are still in the district," Davis says. "I have to continue fighting for public schools because what they are doing is wrong .I understand their point of view, but it's just a Band-Aid solution that solves nothing."