Connecticut school district tightens dress code policy

Friday, August 6, 1999

The Waterbury, Conn., Board of Education voted unanimously this week to tighten its dress code policy by making uniforms mandatory for elementary and middle school students.

The board's prior policy had allowed students to adhere to a less stringent dress code if their parents signed a waiver opting their children out of wearing the uniforms. Several students and their parents are currently challenging that policy in court.

Under the new policy, parents can opt-out only for “genuine” religious or health concerns. “Where the bona fide religious beliefs or health needs of a student conflict with the school attire policy, the schools will provide reasonable accommodation,” the policy reads. The policy also states that “approved coverings worn as part of a student's bona fide religious practices or beliefs shall not be prohibited under this policy.”

The policy, adopted Aug. 4, also contains an “accommodation of free expression” provision, which says that “approved clothing containing an expressive message is permitted” such as a political button. The policy allows school officials to prohibit “expressive items” if administrators reasonably believe the items “may tend to disrupt or interfere with educational interests.”

Michael Andolina, president of the Waterbury Board of Education, says safety concerns prompted the original uniform policy and what he calls its “latest refinement.”

“The development of our school dress policy has been an evolutionary process,” he said. “We moved away from a more optional policy because there were a small amount of people who elected to opt out of the program and also because it was administratively difficult to run.

“We are in a different time now,” Andolina said. “Freedom of expression was more of a legitimate issue in the '70s and '80s. It is still a legitimate issue, but safety wasn't as crucial an issue 20 years ago as it is now.

“The uniforms makes teachers, principals and the community feel better in the school environment,” Andolina said. “It makes the kids act better.”

Dr. Roger Damerow, superintendent for the Waterbury Public School System, which has more than 16,000 students and 29 schools, agrees that uniforms improve the climate of the classrooms.

“I don't think school uniforms are a silver bullet by any means, but they are widely supported in this community and are symbolic of an effort in Waterbury to improve the school system,” Damerow said.

Both Andolina and Damerow believe the policy does not infringe on students' First Amendment free-expression rights to any significant degree. “It may infringe on students' free-expression rights just a tiny bit but I don't think it is a big issue,” Damerow said.

“There is a great deal of flexibility in this policy and it is not punitive,” he said.

But several students and parents had already opposed the old policy, challenging it in state court earlier this year. With assistance from the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union, four middle school students and their parents challenged the policy on numerous grounds, including the First Amendment. The students allege a violation of their general rights to free expression and the parents allege a violation of their rights to parental autonomy.

On June 3, a Connecticut Superior Court judge refused to halt enforcement of the policy in Byars v. City of Waterbury, writing: “The Waterbury school attire policy is rationally related to the Waterbury Board of Education's legitimate interests in protecting the health and safety of the students in its schools and eliminating distractions or disruptions in the classroom.”

Damerow said the judge's denial of the injunction might signal sympathy on the part of the judge to the school board's position “and could well be an indication of the outcome of the litigation.”

Ann Parrent, staff attorney for the CCLU who represents the plaintiffs in the Byars case, declined to comment on the latest change in the policy until she had a chance to review it.

However, Parrent said that “uniform policies that require conformity at the expense of students' ability to express their individuality violate constitutional rights to liberty. The judge's earlier opinion was a denial of a preliminary injunction. We hope ultimately that we will be able to prevail and show that the onerous restrictions in the dress policy are not necessary to serve any legitimate goals of the school district.”