Students demonstrate against dress code

January 24, 1997


Staff Writer

More than 50 students demonstrated against dress codes Friday afternoon outside the Washington County Board of Education central office.

The students, who braved stinging sleet for more than an hour, also got a chance to talk with Schools Superintendent Wayne F. Gersen about their grievances.

"Fight for your rights! Dress how you like!" shouted the group in front of the administration building on Commonwealth Avenue. Dozens waved protest signs with slogans such as, "What's more important, my clothes or my mind?"

The protest was sparked by Williamsport High School students, who say the dress code there violates their rights to freedom of speech and self-expression.


School administrators say the dress codes help schools maintain discipline, order and an environment that doesn't distract from academics.

A group calling itself the Western Maryland Anarchists Collective handed out materials criticizing the dress code at Williamsport and urging people to attend school board meetings and contact board members to voice their displeasure.

Williamsport students complained about receiving in-school suspensions for having frayed or holey jeans, dyed hair or wallet chains.

Jeff Preische, 17, was voted "Mr. WHS" by the Williamsport High School student body, but that hasn't stopped him from getting in trouble, he said. Preische, who was wearing a dog collar, necklaces, suspenders that were hanging below his waist, slightly frayed jeans, and some small chains, said he was given in-school suspension Friday by Principal James Hardin.

"What caught my attention were the metal chains that he had," Hardin said. Hardin said he made the boy sit in his office for the rest of the day but didn't write it up as an in-school suspension.

Preische said that he and others have talked at length with Hardin and other Williamsport administrators without success. That's why students were protesting, he said.

The students' signs showed their thoughts.

One said: "Discrimination is a learned behavior. We don't want it in our schools." Another: "I'm not a social deviant, I'm a free thinker."

Gersen and William McKinley, the director of secondary schools, met with the students outside the building for about 20 minutes and invited them to send two representatives to a task force already working on updating students' rights and responsibilities.

"We're going to look at their concerns and do what's best for everybody," McKinley said.

Gersen said later that the students have at least one legitimate issue - whether patches of a political nature can be banned. Patches promoting marijuana or alcohol are clearly unacceptable, but others are, he said. "I think we'd be hard pressed to say you couldn't wear a patch that said I'm for Bill Clinton or Bob Dole."

But Gersen said that the ultimate decision was for adults to make.

"I think the overriding consideration in all this has to remain order in the schools. Adults have to get together and decide what constitutes disruptive clothing and what doesn't."

Many protesters came from other high schools in the county - North Hagerstown, South Hagerstown and Boonsboro.

Protesters questioned why adults were so eager to control students' appearance.

"There are a lot more important issues to deal with than how kids dress," said Travis Miller, 19, a North High graduate.

In-school suspension "is a bigger distraction to education than frayed jeans," said Katy Davis, a Williamsport 10th-grader.

"There are teachers who dye their hair," said Anna Verdel, 16, of North High. "Who are they to say what's an unnatural color?"

Verdel, who was wearing bright makeup and fishnet stockings, said she was first in her class with a 4.09 grade point average. Verdel said dress codes send the wrong message to students.

Not all of the protesters had violated the dress codes.

Kendra Koontz, 17, a friend of Preische's, dresses immaculately. She never gets hassled, she said, but that doesn't mean she doesn't think what's happening to her friends is wrong. "I don't think they should be kicked out of school because of (how they dress)," she said.

Hardin said an unruly group of 15 or so were instigating problems at the school.

"These kids are kids that really need discipline," Hardin said. "They are students who don't contribute much to our school."

Hardin said he wasn't about to give in to a few students' demands.

"If every time I had 15 students who did not like something, I capitulated, where would we be?" Hardin asked. "We can't operate that way. We're there to provide an education for the majority of our school.

"For some reason, this group feels that they have the right to do just about everything they want to do. What they need is more structure, not less."

Hardin said anything that can inflame other students was off-limits.

"I'm not going to have items that are controversial," he said.

"I just wish that our students and faculty could get the notoriety that these kids have gotten," Hardin said. "If we had all this energy put into community service hours or put into our school you would see all kinds of progress, and then you would have something positive to report on."

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