Friday, January 8, 2010

Fashion and Public Schools

This appears to be more and more of a hot button issue these days.

Today I saw three stories alone about fashion issues relating to public school activities. One is from a few months ago (I think the ABC website is apparently so bass-ackwards they're not even linking to proper stories). One is from last year, and one is recent.

In the first case - students were suspended from extra-curricular activities because of behavior which occurred outside of school.

In the second - a student was arrested for refusing to leave the high school prom because she was wearing an outfit which did not conform to the dress standards laid out beforehand.

In the third - students got in trouble for wearing t-shirts which were reminiscent of 9/11.

The first two stories directly address the problems related to attempting to maintain some kind of order in the public school system, which is particularly difficult in an age when students are encouraged to "express themselves" with no consideration of social mores.

Now - I am far from a conservative person, in thought or dress. I just recently purchased a second suit, and they are both hanging in my closet and will likely not see the light of day until (hopefully) job interviews next year. My preferred mode of dress is jeans and a t-shirt, or maybe cargo pants but just because they have two extra pockets which are excellent for carrying books. But I certainly wouldn't think of wearing a bathing suit to work. There are simply some conventions which students need to learn, and among those conventions are appropriate and acceptable attire and behavior.

Turning specifically to the article about cheerleaders who took racy pictures of themselves over the summer and were then suspended from extra-curricular activities (like cheerleading) because they put them on myspace - who still uses myspace??? But - an important that was not made in the article, and I hope the lawyers make in their case, is that these girls were not suspended from school. They have a right to an education, just as they have a right to express themselves in any way which they see fit, online or in person, anytime school is not in session.

And for the most part I agree with the decision of the principal (I think the "apology" to the coaches was a bit extreme and ridiculous), and I am overjoyed that the school district administration didn't roll over when angry parents got huffy about it. At no point does it seem that these students' inherent right to attend school was infringed - they simply lost their privileges to represent the school in an extra-curricular activity. And given their embarrassing behavior, why should they be allowed to represent the school?

Finally - the last article, which I think is the most complex. I specifically did not mention in my beginning that these students were Muslim. This seems to have been the source of a lot of the concern. Take a look at the picture:

If a bunch of white students had been wearing that sweatshirt, with those words, I think everyone would have thought it was a statement about the power of the American community to bounce back from a terrorist attack. However, because these students were Muslim, this message got inverted, and somehow people took it as a pro-terror statement, that the Muslim terrorists can bounce back from our attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq. Stupid. But, unfortunately like most stupid things, understandable. It is interesting that the message can be so changed based simply on the messenger. It's not exactly McLuhan's truism, but definitely a wonderful instance of people over-reading what should be a simple message.

All of these add up to a complexity of freedom of expression, the power of administrators, and modern connectedness and technology. How these things are going to get resolved is beyond me, but I think that we are going to need more than just a Bong Hits for Jesus resolution to establish what we can and should expect from teenagers (and parents) in our civil society.

**footnote - the problem of clothing and acceptable behavior is not limited to the United States.

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