EXETER — It’s been nearly two decades since Wyoming Area School District last updated its student dress code. Tuesday’s decision to implement an updated version has caused a stir across the school district – among parents, students, teachers and administrators.
During a combined work session and meeting Tuesday, the board voted 6-3 to adopt the dress code which will take effect for the 2016-17 school year for students in seventh through 12th grade. Board members voting against the code were Carl Yorina, Kimberly Yochum and Estelle Campenni.
After months of deliberating over a code that would be policed to fourth through 12th grade students, the board decided to loosen its grip on the code at an executive session earlier this month. From that, it decided to have seventh through 12th grade students follow the code.
The previous dress code, adopted in September 1999, was much looser than the current code now in place.
For example, the previous policy stated “Coats and jackets are to be stored in lockers and not worn in school.” The new policy says track jackets and blazers are permitted, while outerwear must stay in a student’s locker.
Soon-to-be Wyoming Area junior Addison Orzel, the freshman and sophomore class president, offered her opinion to the school board on several occasions and is disappointed in the board’s decision.
“For all the students that spoke up, it felt like everyone was being ignored,” she said. “They should listen to us. I can’t think of one person that is excited to go to school now that it passed.”
Orzel said distractions would not be caused by students wearing prohibited clothing, but by teachers or administrators having to halt class to discipline the student.
“In the dress code, it states ‘to prevent disruption to the educational process,’” she said. “They shouldn’t be suspending us for something as silly as having three holes in our jeans. It’s more disruptive to pull us out of class.”
Board member Gerald Stofko, a member of the policy committee that created the code, said the board listened to the younger students’ needs.
“We did not need this in fourth, fifth and sixth,” he said. “In seventh grade, you are starting to become an adult.”
Stofko went on to say the younger students are more active in school, with events such as recess to consider. When students arrive at the Secondary Center, they are expected to dress appropriately. This new, revised dress code, he said, allows school administration to handle violations with concrete facts.
At June’s board meeting, a petition started by district students and parents and containing more than 100 signatures, was presented to the board. At the time, District Solicitor Jarrett Ferentino advised those in attendance the dress code would not be voted on and passed until July or August.
According to the new policy, the dress code “is to ensure that our students dress appropriately, are not disruptive to the educational process, and do not compromise the safety and security of our school.” It goes on to say, “It is not our purpose to interfere with student decisions or freedom of expression.”
Stofko’s biggest issue is with hooded sweatshirts and cargo pants, some of the reasons he voted for the new code. He said with “hoodies,” students can put their hoods up and the administration can’t tell who the student is or what they are doing. Cargo pants, he said, are dangerous.
“You can ask any juvenile detention personnel and they’ll tell you (cargo pants) hide too many things,” he said.
Because of the change in dress code, Orzel and many other students and families must adjust their wardrobe. Orzel said she and her sister do not own a pair of khakis or a collared shirt.
“There are families that don’t have these clothes,” she said.
The policy says if any parents object to the policy based on religious or medical reasons, they must present a signed letter detailing the reason for the objection. “School officials do reserve the right to individually review the students dress and if found unacceptable, can quietly and privately attempt to settle the problem,” the policy states.
If a student is persistently disobeying the dress code, that student will be suspended. Also, the school board may amend the policy at any time.
Orzel said, in the past, the dress code was not enforced on a daily basis. Because of the loose policing, she said, some students are saying they are not going to follow it once school starts this year.
“I want (the school board) to know how this personally affects the students,” she said. “They went over our heads and they didn’t listen to us. We have a voice that should be recognized.”
Wyoming Area Principal Vito Quaglia said the current code is now similar to what other local high schools enforce, including Pittston Area, where his children attend school. He said the former code at Wyoming Area was hard to enforce because it was vague and didn’t keep up with fashion trends.
“With them to come up with a more concrete policy, it will be easier to enforce,” he said. “Pittston Area updates theirs every year. It’s going to be something we’ll look at and enforce what we have.”
In June, the board voted to hire an “assistant principal of discipline” at a total cost of $116,000 – a $65,000 base salary and $51,000 for benefits. This will give the high school three principals, Stofko said, and take a load off Quaglia and Assistant Principal Cathy Ranieli.
“(The principals) were handling so many problems with the dress code they weren’t doing the job to the full potential,” Stofko said.
Tuesday’s meeting was attended by hundreds of students and parents. Stofko said he’s read countless of letters and emails sent to the school regarding the dress code. In the end, he said, he had to do what is best for the school.
“We didn’t want to get in a controversy with every student and adult out there (Tuesday),” he said. “Did I take their point of views? Absolutely. I had to vote for what was right for our school district.”
Reach Nick Wagner at 570-991-6406 or on Twitter @Dispatch_Nick