CHARLESTON (AP) — The Kanawha County school board could soon take on a controversial issue it hasn’t touched in more than a decade: a district-wide dress code for teachers.
But school board members can expect to hear the same criticisms as they did when their attempt at a similar policy failed in 2001, said Christine Campbell, president of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia.
“What are we trying to do? Does this really impair the children’s ability to learn, and where does it stop? Are we going to line teachers up and measure the length of their skirts?” Campbell asked. “Let teachers do their jobs and focus on education instead of imposing someone’s personal preference on their style.”
AFT-WV recently filed a grievance on behalf of four teachers in Lewis County, where a dress code for teachers was approved this summer that banned blue jeans and shorts.
Currently, there’s no specific dress code policy for teachers in Kanawha County Schools, but a teacher’s professional appearance is included in their evaluation, according to the school district’s attorney, Jim Withrow.
But the county is hoping to implement some sort of standard that school administrators will be able to point to when they think employees are dressed inappropriately.
“I think it’s probably a good idea to have some standard. What that standard is, I’m not prepared at this point to say,” Withrow said. “Even under the existing rules, if you say a teacher is supposed to dress professionally, then it may be incumbent upon us to define what we think ‘professional’ and ‘appropriate’ is. People may disagree with that and there’s a grievance process, but it’s one of those things if you don’t have a standard, then everyone’s left to their own judgment.
“The student dress code is designed to minimize distractions and maintain an appropriate atmosphere in school so that proper instruction can take place, and we need to use that same principle with teachers.”
Kanawha County school board member Becky Jordon has been vocal about the issue, and talked about it during a board meeting last week.
Jordon says while she doesn’t want to “nitpick” the issue, she wants more attention paid to the length of teachers’ dresses, prominent tattoos to be covered and no facial piercings.
“I think teachers should be able to dress comfortably. All I’m asking for is that if you’re telling a student they can’t wear tank tops, then an employee shouldn’t be able to. The length of their dresses need to be carefully watched too,” Jordon said.
The policy proposed in 2001 by the Kanawha County school board, which was ultimately voted down after much debate, aimed to ban blue jeans, strapless dresses, low-cut blouses and Spandex.
Jordon said she is not for banning jeans entirely, and that there are always exceptions, but said teachers should be held to the same expectations as students.
“I was at a school recently and a teacher had the back out of her shirt and a big tattoo was showing. I’ve seen some teachers whose skirts are so short that it does draw attention. But I’m probably a little more old-fashioned,” she said. “I just want to wait and see what (Superintendent Ron) Duerring’s team comes up with. I’m saying it definitely needs to be the same as what students have to do.”
AFT-WV says when school districts impose dress codes for teachers, it’s unconstitutional, and they point to a Kanawha County Circuit Court decision from 1988, which ruled that school boards do not have the authority to implement certain dress codes because it hampers teachers’ freedom of expression.
That decision — which had to do with the Mason County Board of Education — ruled that teachers have the right to dress as they choose “so long as no disruptive or distracting effects occur which are detrimental to the educational process.”
Campbell said any dress requirements beyond a district’s code of conduct should be left up to administrators to deal with on a case-by-case basis.
An acceptable policy, according to AFT-WV, is that of Putnam County’s, which says teachers “should dress in an acceptable manner which will allow them to complete their work, meet health requirements, and not disrupt the school.”
Adding tattoos and piercings into the mix is much more complicated, Campbell said.
“We’re living in a new culture. We’re looking to attract new, young teachers, and for a lot of young people, that’s the way they express themselves,” she said. “None of these things are impairing a child’s ability to learn or a teacher’s ability to teach. We’re trying to improve student achievement. Why are we getting bogged down with debates over what teachers should wear when we already have case law that says school boards don’t have the authority to do that?”
Beth Sturgill, the principal at Piedmont Elementary School, only allows her employees to wear jeans on Fridays. She also has a tattoo of a cross on her wrist.
“I typically wear longer sleeved shirts, but not when it’s hot. I’ve had kids ask me, ‘What is that?’ or ‘Let me see.’ But I don’t think other than that the tattoo has been an issue,” she said.
Sturgill said she’s in support of a more specific dress code for teachers.
“I expect my teachers to maintain a professional image, and I don’t think jeans or sweat suits is professional. So we agreed as a staff to only do casual Fridays,” she said. “Some sort of stipulation is important.”
George Washington Principal George Aulenbacher said he preferred not to comment on whether or not he has a tattoo, but said he supports a dress code policy for teachers.
“There needs to be a professional standard as far as dress goes,” he said. “But it needs to be common sense — not all or nothing.”
Leslie Carver, an education major at West Virginia State University, student teaches science courses for Kanawha County Schools.
Last Friday, she wore jeans and a t-shirt in support of her school’s football game. She also has five tattoos — four of which are often visible, depending on her outfit.
As part of the student-teaching program at State, she’s required to dress formally for classes.
“I rarely dress down. I think it’s appropriate that teachers dress for success. This is my career, and I dress like it’s a career. But I’m not going to purposefully cover up my tattoos,” she said. “I don’t think that teachers should be able to dress down all the time or wear jeans constantly. You want to make a good impression on your students.
“The kids have asked me about my tattoos, but it’s not like they’re shocked. It’s normal,” she said. “The biggest reaction I get, if anything, is, ‘Hey my teacher’s cool.’”