Education

Spring Season Brings Discussion About Controversial South Brunswick High School Dress Code

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SOUTH BRUNSWICK, NJ - As a result of school-wide objections, protests, and speculation concerning the South Brunswick High School's dress code, an improved version of the now controversial school policy, has been distributed to students and teachers.

The revised copy of the dress code was released to Student Government members and representatives at the Student Senate meeting on May 28.

The original dress code policy’s “inappropriate dress” items included low-cut shirts, clothing revealing bare shoulders, backless tops, excessively tight clothing, clothes revealing the midriff area, pants worn below the hips, short skirts and and clothing bearing obscenity.

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While most of the new draft’s requirements remained relatively similar to the original policy’s restrictions, a few rules have been relaxed, and previously unclear conditions have since been clarified.

For instance, the fingertip rule has been abolished in the most recent copy of the dress code, and the new draft states that shorts and dresses/skirts "must be mid-thigh length or longer".

However, items such as hats (except for religious reasons), bandanas, headphones in the hallways, and “unsafe” footwear including flip-flops and open-toed shoes, are still prohibited in the new draft.

At the most recent Senate meeting on May 28, SBHS Principal Peter Varela stated that the new dress code procedures are "not set in stone," and that there may be further developments in the near future.

These revisions to the previous policy are a result of many outspoken students’ dissatisfied remarks against the policy’s previous restrictions.

Many high school students have spoken out against the dress code on social media or, in some cases, directly to school officials in an attempt to convey their distaste for the school rule.

Some female students found themselves especially displeased with this list, as they considered many of the prohibited items to be specific to girls.

Junior Akarshna Premanand publicly addressed the dress code on her Facebook profile.

"I'm not comfortable with the 'boys will be boys' message that [the dress code email] is sending," said Premanand, 'The issue [is] that the dress code is enforced much more often with females/female-bodied students than male/male-bodied students...  I'm not asking for the destruction of the dress code. But I am asking for a dress code unbiased towards gendered bodies."

South Brunswick Board of Education representative junior Sophia Balsamo addressed these female students' concerns about the dress code at the Board of Education meeting on May 11.

"I and the student body understand that the dress code is put in place to maintain a level of decorum within the schools, but what is being punished, I don't believe is indecorous," Balsamo said in a prepared statement.

She spoke on behalf of female students who claimed to be directly targeted in a hostile manner by school officials due to the perceived sexism behind the school dress code.

"Many of my fellow female students, [who are] good kids with perfect records, have told me that they have been stopped in the hallway, often with a sarcastic remark about their improper clothing," said Balsamo.

Similarly, student representatives at the most recent Senate meeting on May 28 voiced their concerns about hall monitors and how they enforce dress code procedure.

Some representatives discussed their beliefs that hall monitors tend to cite shorts more than other garments as violations. Others expressed concern that staff members are citing dress code violations at the expense of time spent learning in class.

Junior Zeena Mohamed said she was targeted by a paraprofessional in this regard.

Mohamed stated that she was explicitly told by a hall monitor that she would be “raped in the parking lot” because of the clothes she was wearing while walking with her friends in the hallway.

“[My friends] were shocked. I was shocked. I almost wanted to cry, [and] he had this creepy, smug look on his face,” said Mohamed about the experience, “The first thing I did when I got back to class was ask to talk to my counselor and my teacher could see I was really shaken up.”

Mohamed also addressed the Board of Education about the incident at the meeting on May 11.  

"I think that [the paraprofessional's comments constituted as] sexual harassment, and if this were to happen in the workplace, he would be fired," said Mohamed at this meeting.

The accused paraprofessional, Jeffrey Boekhout declined to be interviewed, except to say that the exchange “was a long time ago.”

Hall monitor Darius Gilliam advised against using strong language with female students in all circumstances, in an effort to avoid these situations and to prevent offense.

"Because I am a male hall monitor, if a girl is dressed inappropriately, I don't say anything [directly to her]," said Mr. Gilliam, "Usually I call the office and tell them that a student is not dressed appropriately. This way, I save myself from getting into trouble. Even if [a hall monitor] does not mean to offend a [female] student, it's not safe to say anything... because she can say that she's uncomfortable and whatnot."

In response to student concerns about paraprofessional behavior, Varela stated that hall monitors "are the eyes and ears of the faculty," and that despite their perceived antagonism towards high-schoolers, they "care about [the students] in SBHS."

"I want you to work with them," suggested  Varela, "If you want to receive respect from paras, you should give them respect as well."

Recently, some students took objection a step further, and organized a school-wide protest against the dress code and its restrictions.

Junior Ahan Sikri and senior Gowri Cheepurupalli attempted to start a movement known as the SBHS Trash Bag Revolution designed to symbolically challenge the dress code and its purpose.

Students who wished to protest the dress code were encouraged to wear industrial garbage bags throughout the school day in defiance of the dress code policy's perceived restrictions.

Sikri talked about the origin behind the Trash Bag Revolution at the Board of Education meeting on May 11.

"Pulling girls out of class and making them fear that they will be disciplined because of what they are wearing don't seem to me like [practices in a] healthy learning environment," said Sikri to the Board of Education, "The Trash Bag movement is the only way we feel we can get [the administration's] attention [about this issue]."

The SBHS Trash Bag Revolution was originally scheduled for Friday, May 15.

However, the revolution fell through as a result of negotiation and in-depth discussion with school officials.

After speaking to administrators about the policy, Sikri claimed that the school is now working toward a better dress code policy, and that the Trash Bag Revolution, though it did not succeed in theory, still contributed to bringing about change in SBHS.

"The Trash Bag Revolution's goal was to encore change, if we could accomplish that without the revolution then by all means. It just made process organic and less antagonizing," said Sikri, "We want to work towards a better South Brunswick, and that happens by working with the administration not working against them. "

The final copy of the new dress code will appear in the 2015-2016 edition of the SBHS Student Handbook, available to students in September.

Gopa Praturi is a junior at South Brunswick High School studying journalism and is a freelance reporter for TAPinto South Brunswick and Cranbury.

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