Littleton shooting has nation’s schools examining student dress

Monday, April 26, 1999

Last week's shooting deaths at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., have schools across the country scrutinizing students' behavior and clothing. Many schools are taking action by outlawing the wearing of trench coats.

Students who do not comply may be suspended or even arrested.

John Leavitt, public relations officer for Colorado Springs School District 11, said that his district already had a policy allowing school officials to ban clothing that was disruptive and that negatively affected the school environment, and now trench coats fall into that category.

“Now (a student wearing ) a black trench coat walking across campus is a very frightening thing,” Leavitt said. Principals have been told they can view trench coats as disruptive and may confiscate them, he says.

“Down the road the policy may not apply, but right now there's a message when you wear [a trench coat],” he said. “We have an obligation to ensure student safety and keep the learning environment free from distraction,” Leavitt said. “Wearing a trench coat is not protected speech it is threatening and has horrible connotations.”

Leavitt said that the banning of trench coats could be a “knee-jerk reaction,” and that for schools in Colorado it might be an emotional reaction, but that the “sanctity of our schools” must be protected.

Four trench-coat-wearing teens were arrested in Colorado Springs late last week. The teens arrived at Coronado High School to pick up one of the teens' brothers and were confronted by a group of students at the high school. Teachers intervened and the visitors, three of whom attend another high school, were arrested for trespassing. The fourth is a 16-year-old dropout.

In Nashville, Tenn., a passerby called police on April 22 after seeing a teen wearing a black trench coat cross the street in front of Hillsboro High School. The student, who often wears a black trench coat, was advised by a police officer that wearing the coat might not be a good idea in light of what it has come to symbolize, said Director of High Schools Jim Turbeville.

While Nashville principals decide for their respective schools what they will do, Turbeville said that he doubted any would restrict the wearing of trench coats.

Turbeville said there was another incident in which a student made comments in class about how he understood the agony of the Littleton shooters. The student was not seen as threatening and met with his parents and a psychologist to discuss the inappropriateness of his behavior, Turbeville said.

“Regardless of the recent tragedy, students still don't lose the rights to free speech,” he said.

In Appleton, Wis., an 18-year-old Appleton West High School student on April 22 claimed he was exercising his right to free speech when he made remarks about the school shootings in Colorado and threatened to bring a gun to school. The teen was jailed after he became disruptive, spit in the face of a police officer assigned to the school and threatened to return with a gun to shoot the officer.

Thomas Scullen, superintendent of schools for Appleton, said that the district already had a no-coats policy that has been in effect for four years. He says that students are not allowed to wear their coats from class to class because of the possibility of concealing weapons.

Scullen says that kids do not have a right to wear Nazi symbols or gang clothing; this dress could be potentially hazardous because it disrupts the school environment. The rules for dress are uniformly applied, Scullen says.

“We are obligated to control what the kids wear when it comes to safety,” he said.

Meanwhile in San Francisco, city officials announced last week that there would be “zero tolerance” for bizarre behavior in schools and told teachers to be on alert for students exhibiting anti-social or threatening behavior.

Sandina Robbins, director of communications and public relations for the San Francisco Unified School District, said that scrutinizing students' speech and dress did not curtail freedom of speech.

Robbins says that issues of freedom of expression are of great importance in a city like San Francisco, but students still cannot walk around wearing hats and coats because the clothing can conceal weapons.

The SFUSD policy states that: “The school shall be concerned only when [clothing and hairdo] are extreme and could cause school distraction or disruption or be unsafe.”

Richard Fossey, associate professor of education at Louisiana State University and author of an essay, “Litigating School Dress Codes,” says the reaction by schools to eliminate trench coats is understandable, but not helpful.

“The root of the problem (of youth violence) doesn't have much to do with clothing,” Fossey said.

Fossey says that rules about clothing are not critical to safety and that litigation over clothing trivializes the First Amendment.

Jerald Newberry, executive director of the National Education Association's health information network, said that clothing was not the issue. Newberry said children's access to guns, their access to mental health services and their exposure to name-calling and bullying needed to be addressed.

“If we simply have a knee-jerk reaction to fix extremely complex issues with simple motions, we have missed the boat,” Newberry said.