Prosser School Board airs doubts about uniforms

Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldMay 1, 2014 

PROSSER -- The concept of school uniforms is raising more concerns than praise from the Prosser School Board and school administrators.

The board heard this week an example of guidelines for standardized student attire. The guidelines covered everything, from how long a pair of shorts must be to prohibiting jewels or spikes on belts.

The guidelines were not a recommendation from the committee that developed them, said Mike Denny, task force coordinator and school psychologist. They are meant to show how school uniforms could be implemented.

Despite past support, many doubts were aired, from the burden buying uniforms could place on families to whether regulating student dress was the best use of educators' attention.

"I don't know if we're really focused on the right thing," said board member Bruce Matsumura.

A few Mid-Columbia and Yakima Valley school districts have uniform policies, including Paterson -- a small K-8 district just south of Prosser -- and Mabton. Officials in those districts say uniforms cut down on disciplinary issues, peer pressure and gang activity.

Prosser began looking at a school uniform policy a few years ago. Roughly three out of four parents and educators supported considering uniforms and the board authorized Superintendent Ray Tolcacher and his staff in October 2012 to draft a possible policy.

Denny led a committee of community members, some for and against standardized attire. Administrators also visited and spoke with other schools and districts where uniforms are in place.

The example guidelines are more specific than the district's current rules on student dress.

Rather than prohibiting specific types of clothing, such as anything promoting drugs or alcohol, or demonstrating gang affiliation, students would have a set list of clothes they could wear, such as specific colors of polo shirts.

"We're trying to minimize the differences between students and distractions in the classroom," Denny said. "Most importantly, this is to prepare students for the work environment they'll be in after school."

Denny had his concerns, though. Specific guidelines would mean teachers or administrators would have to spend more time checking to see if students are following them.

At one school with a uniform policy Denny visited, the school's office dealt with 1,000 referrals for uniform violations in a year. A Prosser school currently deals with maybe two dozen in the same period.

"Our primary concern is protecting instructional time," Denny said.

The school also would have to have clothes on hand for students who show up out of compliance.

That could also mean the district would need laundry facilities to clean loaned clothes.

There's resistance to such a policy among parents, who don't want to complicate how they buy clothes for their kids, and students who have been heard criticizing limits on their individuality.

Each district that has implemented uniform policies has done so for different reasons, Tolcacher said.

"You have to look at what needs to be done in the district," he said.

David Funk, assistant principal at Prosser High School, said a more rigid code would have benefits.

The high school struggles with whether shorts are the right length or tank tops have straps that are at least two inches thick.

"It would be more black and white, cut and dry," Funk said.

Others said that issues with student dress are a minor issue at their schools, with maybe one or two students who are repeat offenders of the dress code.

"I feel like the priority of the Prosser School District has been on teaching and learning and that's where I want it to stay," said Sally Juzeler, principal at Prosser Heights Elementary School.

Matsumura asked if a teacher would be forced to pay more attention to a student with clothes outside of policy or a student struggling with their lessons under uniform guidelines.

"I prefer less rules to more rules," he said.

Vice Chairman Bill Jenkin said he appreciated all the work that went into the committee's efforts but was concerned about how it would affect students.

"I think it's pretty severe to have all the same color (of polos)," he said. "I like a little bit of self-identity."

No action was taken and the board is expected to discuss the issue at its next meeting.

-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver; Google+: +TyBeaverTCHerald

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