Hundreds to challenge Florida county’s school-uniform policy in court

Friday, September 3, 1999

(Editor's note: On Sept. 13, Polk County parents and students filed suit against the school board in federal court in Tampa, Fla.)

More than 500 Florida parents and children will sue the Polk County School Board in federal court next week over a controversial school-uniform policy, says the leader of a parents' rights group.

County school board officials proposed a district-wide school uniform policy in March 1996. That policy allowed parents to opt out of the program and send their children to school in other clothing.

However, last May the school board took the controversial step of eliminating the opt-out provision.

The elimination of the opt-out provision outraged many parents, including Tim Tillman, who subsequently founded a group, the Parental Action Committee, which now has more than 230 members.

The policy adopted last May states that “public schools in Polk County are experiencing increasingly disruptive and violent behavior by a substantial number of students; an increase in student membership in gangs and student participation in gang activities.”

The policy also cites “a decreasing level of self-control and self-discipline” among students.

The policy requires male students to wear navy blue or white shirts with collars and dark blue, black or khaki pants or walking shorts. Female students must wear navy blue or white blouses or shirts with dark blue, black or khaki skirts, walking shorts, slacks, jumpers or similar clothing.

The policy does contain some exceptions, as when:

  • Students wear buttons “to exercise the right of free speech … unless the button, armband, or other accoutrement signifies or is related to gangs.”
  • Students wear a costume or special clothing necessary for a school play or other school-sponsored activity.
  • The wearing of the uniform “violates a student's sincerely held religious belief.”

Tillman says the policy infringes on students' free-expression rights and also on parental rights. “School officials have shown no toleration for freedom of speech,” he said. “I don't feel any government agency can dictate to me as a parent how I spend my money for my children's clothing and then deny my children an education if they don't comply with the dress code.

“The primary goal of the Parental Action Committee is to return parental involvement and administrative responsibility to the school district,” he said.

Tillman's 11-year-old son, a fifth-grader, recently was suspended for wearing a gray and blue striped T-shirt and blue pants.

Frances McMichael, public information officer for the school board, said that the board was encouraged that no lawsuit had yet been filed. “We have been hearing for a couple of months now that a lawsuit may be filed next week, but it has not happened,” she said.

“The school board and the district staff feel very good that the policy has not yet been challenged,” she added. “Our attorney worked very carefully to try to write a policy that he felt would pass the constitutional test.”

McMichael said that statistics compiled through Sept. 1 show that there have been only 62 suspensions in the 80 schools governed by the Polk County School Board. “This policy impacts about 53,000 students. Sixty-two suspensions may sound like a lot, but day after day 52,900-something students come in and comply with the dress code,” she said.

“We realize there are some people in the community who feel very passionately about this issue, but the reality is, the majority support the policy,” she said.

At least one First Amendment expert says the lawsuit could be the beginning of a landmark case. Arizona-based attorney Gary Klahr, who consults nationwide with parents disenchanted with uniforms, says the lawsuit in Polk County “may be as significant as Tinker.”

In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Community School Dist. that public school officials violated the First Amendment rights of several students for suspending them for wearing black armbands to school to protest U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

In the case, the court said that student expression could not be censored unless it created a material interference or substantial disruption of school activities. Klahr said the Polk County suit could “determine if the courts are going to abandon Tinker as some predict and totally eviscerate kids' rights.”

Klahr says the “new wrinkle” in the suit is the concept of “parent's rights.” The case may determine whether “a parent has the right to control his kid's education if it doesn't interfere with the rights of others.”

Klahr also said that “the suit hopefully will also test whether kids' rights to free expression trump the school's claim of uniform benefits when there is no allegation that the clothing worn is vulgar or creates imminent danger of substantial disruption under the Tinker standard.”

Both the Parental Action Committee and the school board appear to agree that the school uniform policy and any resulting lawsuit are critically important in the larger school uniform movement.

McMichael says that school districts across the country regularly “check in with us” to see if there has been a lawsuit filed against the policy and to find out how the policy is working. “If we can get through this without a lengthy court battle, then other school districts will adopt similar programs,” she said.

Tillman appreciates the potential significance of the lawsuit. “I really feel the eyes of the nation are on Polk County,” he said.