School Board Flip Flops On Dress Code
By Jack Gurner
WATER VALLEY – The Water Valley School Board flip-flopped on the district’s dress code, voting to return to the recommendations made by Superintendent Sammy Higdon in May.
The vote came Monday night at the Board’s regular monthly meeting that was moved to the high school cafeteria to accommodate about 40 female teachers. The group was bearing a petition with 99 signatures asking the Board to revisit the district’s dress code policy.
At issue, according to teachers, were footwear requirements that are unclear and severely limited the types of shoes they could wear.
Teachers Vickie Person and Tracey Varner, who were selected to represent the group, were asked to come forward by Board President Ray Hawkins. Person, a national board certified third grade teacher at Davidson Elementary School, said that she was speaking on behalf of the faculty and staff of the Water Valley School District.
“We are here tonight because we are asking you to reconsider your decision on the shoe policy. Please understand we are not trying to be disrespectful in any kind of way” Person said. “We assure you that we are not taking the dress code lightly and have adhered to it since school began.”
Reading from a prepared statement, Person said that the many of the teachers had spent “a great deal of money” after receiving a memo about the dress code in their June paycheck.
“It is difficult to find heels and sandals with a strap on the back especially in the summertime,” she said referring to the policy’s requirement that shoes have a strap to secure them to the foot. “Many shoes are professional but do not have a strap. The selection of shoes with the strap was limited and pricey.”
Person said that because of the strap issue teachers are very limited in the types of shoes that can be worn. “Some of us have resorted to wearing tennis shoes with our professional attire. Why? Because we are concerned with being comfortable.”
“We believe heels, sandals, dressy flip-flops are more appropriate and professional whether it has a strap or not.”
“Already we have had teachers to fall, use bandages on the back of their heels because of bruises, have swollen feet, have had to change shoes during the day, or take off their shoes completely, She added.
“Many of us already have various health conditions. Many of us require more arch support. Because we stand on our feet most of the day, being comfortable, but professional is important,” she read.
“We believe the shoe policy is unclear,” Person emphasized. “Why? Because with today’s fashions women’s shoes have so many names brands and styles. For example there are mules, wedges, slide-ins, and the list goes on and on. Not all shoes without a strap are called sandals.”
“We value our school, respect you, and believe in looking professional on the outside as well as the inside. However, we feel we can look more professional in other types of shoes.”
Concluding her statement, Person asked that the Board reconsider their decision.
Board member Casey Washington asked to speak next. He said that as one of the people who brought it up that he would “take the heat.”
Washington talked about the overall dress code and said that he was going to be very candid, “I have had complaints from parents where their third or fourth grade child has come home and has seen their teacher’s G-string panties.”
“I know the fashion is a low-cut waistline with a shirt that hits the waistline. But, the first time you lift your arm or bend over, you are seeing a panty line or, in some cases, a tattoo. It’s hard to explain to my six-year-old daughter why her teacher’s got a tattoo.”
“I have no problem with what you do with your personal time,” he told the group. “I think for the most part you are very professional.”
He added that cut-off blue jeans worn as shorts are far from professional as are tank-tops, spaghetti strap shirts and low cut shirts that expose cleavage. “That takes a six-grade boy’s mind way off math. I’m just speaking from experience.”
“In this day and age when we’ve got children having relationships with teachers, we don’t need to leave that temptation there,” Washington said.
“I’m not a dictator type, but I think the only way we discuss this is openly.”
Washington said that he had previously heard some comments that he believed didn’t show good character and respect. “This was very professional tonight. But, I was really disappointed as a parent, as a school board member, that some of the actions and some of the words and things that I heard were being said. It was very discouraging to me because, to me, there is a way to handle things.”
There was a decision made by the board and as teachers that follow the policy it should have been respected until we could come to this hour instead of hearing all the things that I heard in town. Again, I don’t mean to chastise, but it was everything but professional.”
Dr. Steve Edwards said that he was concerned about the short notice given to teachers regarding the shoe policy. “Y’all deserve a little better than that. That’s outside the umbrella of good faith.”
Next to speak from the Board table was Hawkins who said that for him it wasn’t an issue of appearance, but of safety.
Hawkins explained that in many workplaces there are safety requirements for footwear. “We’re allowing people to walk around with flip-flops and sandals and shoes not being secured to their feet. What happens if somebody trips and falls from a liability standpoint.”
“My way of thinking was is that it is safer that everybody has a shoe that’s secured to there foot” he added. “Whether it be by a strap or duck tape or however you want to secure it. But, it’s just safer…less of a hazard if you have on a secure shoe.”
Hawkins said that he could understand a medical issue. “If it’s just a comfort issue…a style issue…whatever the issue is if it’s not medical, then I can’t support it because I have to support the safety issue. I think the safety issue is the thing is that protects our district from liability.”
One of the spectators, who identified herself as a second grade teacher, said that if the issue is safety, then the board should take a look at the students wearing flip flops.
“If you are honestly concerned about the safety issue, I would ask that you consider the dress code for our children,” she said. “It’s not safe for them to have on the flip-flops that very frequently break and we have to find a way to fix that before they can go home.”
“Duly noted,” said Hawkins.
Another teacher spoke, “We’re getting into a smaller and smaller selection of shoes that seem acceptable. We’re just trying to ask for some clarity on it.”
Hawkins responded, “And hopefully we’ll be able to give you some.”
He then told the group that they were welcome to stay or they could leave while Board members discussed the issue.
“Stay,” the group said almost in unison.
After about five minutes of deliberation, Hawkins said that the motion to “go back to the way it was” had passed 3 to 2. Hawkins and Taylor Trusty had voted against with Washington, Edwards, and Lamar Burgess for.
Burgess said, “It might would help things out in another year if you sort of police yourselves as far as to what is appropriate. That way it would make our job a whole lot easier.”
Edwards commented that the principals define what professionalism is and said,” Trying to manage it at the level of the board is very difficult. I am hoping that our principals would help usher that in and build a foundation on what is professional and not.”
High School Principal Dr. Glen Kitchens then stood and said, “Let me get some clarity then. I think on June 30 it was made clear to everybody, not left to me. I don’t have anything to worry about now. It’s pretty simple.”
“Dress professionally was the dress code. And professionally meant different things to different people. And because of that it was then operationally defined on June 30 and passed out. And, there hasn’t been a problem with that since.”
So, tonight’s discussion was between them and you about women’s footwear,” Kitchens continued. “Not professionalism from the principal’s perspective nor judgment from the principal’s perspective.”
“So, I just want that clear. I am not going to be judging anything. I am going to be following what is given. So, I am not going to be worrying about shoes if they match what is June 30. If they don’t match what is June 30 I am going to have a conference with the teacher, the next time I am going to have a conference and put something in their file, and the next time they are going to go home and change.”
“But, I am not going to judge professionalism, I am going to follow the policy,” Kitchens said.
“I’ve got to agree with him,” added Davidson Principal Chester Drewery, who turned toward Kitchens. “I appreciate you putting that into words.”
Among other actions at the meeting, the Board:
• Approved Dribben and Associates at a price of $13,500 for the fiscal year 2009 audit;
• Was informed of the possibility of a 5 percent cut in state funds that could come at any time, but was more likely to occur in January. Higdon said that the cut would amount to around $300,000;
• Accepted a donation of $1000 to the English Department at the High School from the Junior Auxiliary;
• Approved school bus turnarounds;
• Voted to dispose of assets. In this case one Dell computer;
• Entered executive session to discuss a list of personnel recommendations.