By Roger Barbee
Some weeks ago I wrote a column about the ninth grade class I teach at Central High School in Woodstock. I wrote that the students in the class were representative of all our students. A reader wrote to disagree. The reader observed:
"My perception is based on observation of Central students entering, leaving, and moving about the building and attending sports and other events. My perception is reinforced by conversations with students and parents who are just as saddened and upset by what they see and hear as I am. You might not have written the article in the same way if you had ever waited outside the Central entrance at 3:15 PM for your 16 year old daughter and heard the commonly used obscene language to which she was exposed and seen the many open displays of affection. I am sure you have seen the obvious lack of pride in appearance and hygiene by students. Many students look like they are leaving a homeless shelter. Students wear t-shirts with obscene slogans at sporting events. Obscene dancing occurs at school events. I could continue but you get the idea.
"Most of this is not the fault of the kids. The fault lies at the feet of their parents or guardians. I've been told the school administration cannot set a clear dress and appearance code because of liberal interpretation of 1st Amendment rights. (e.g., no torn clothes; no short-shorts; no pajamas; no halter tops; no facial hair; no visible tattoos; etc.) As I watch students leave the school, the question in my mind is don't their parents care? But there is a code of conduct that school administrators do not always enforce. I wish this had been the topic of your article."
I cannot dispute what the reader sees and hears. However, I do not agree that because of liberal interpretation of the First Amendment that a dress code is not enforced. The dress code of our schools is set by our elected school board members and it is the job of any school administration to monitor policy as set by the school system. The administrators do enforce the policy, and I think that the Shenandoah County School Board consults with state and local experts before writing any policy. However, I suggest something else to my reader and "students and parents who are just as saddened and upset by what they see and hear as I am."
If any adult is a witness to inappropriate conduct by a student, that adult should, in my mind, correct what is being done or find a school person to enforce what is expected. If an adult hears obscene language and does not at least correct the student, then the adult, by being passive, condones the language. A gentle but firm reprimand is correct in such a situation, and it does not matter if you know the student or not. Silence is acceptance and approval. The same is true for dress.
I understand that some parents are concerned about issues raised by my reader, and I encourage them to go speak with administrators. A good conversation, face to face, can be a road to deeper understanding and appreciation for what school administrators do. I encourage parents to not go around frustrated, but let school leaders know what you think and how you feel. This matters for it is about our children, the leaders of our tomorrow.
If we, as adults, pass the blame for what we see as wrong, then we are part of the problem. If one believes, as my reader suggested, that the lack of a clear dress code is because of a liberal interpretation, then the blame is being passed on to someone else. There is nothing restricting any adult from, in a civil manner, correcting the student's misbehavior. To "beg off" that responsibility is an action, I think, that prevails in our culture. Just listen to any elected official who is eager to blame someone else.
I hope we all, as adults, will correct inappropriate language and dress that we see in our students. Approach any student acting out as you would want your own child spoken to. Use polite and non-aggressive language, but be firm in letting the student know that you find his or her language or dress not acceptable.
Remaining silent and walking away helps nothing. The adage, "It takes a village to raise a child" has become somewhat trite, but it remains true. We adults need to come together and show our students a clearer path.
Roger Barbee is a retired educator who lives in Edinburg with his wife Mary Ann, four dogs and five cats. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.