Parents across the South battle mandatory school dress codes

Tuesday, August 17, 1999

While many parents of public school students across the country object to mandatory school dress codes, Southern parents are banding together to voice their opposition to the policies.

Several parents have formed groups to raise public awareness about the dress codes, which they say violate their and their children's First Amendment rights and are antithetical to individual freedom.

Tim Tillman, father of three public school children in Polk County, Fla., has formed the Parental Action Committee to challenge the school district's adoption of a mandatory uniform policy.

On its Web site, the group says that its “emphasis will be on countering the continuing attempts of the school board to deny parents their rights to opt out of the uniform policy.”

“This mandatory school uniform policy is un-American and is fundamentally wrong,” Tillman said. “The children in this community are being denied their freedom of political and religious expression.”

He says that he and many other parents have hired an attorney and will soon file a lawsuit challenging the school uniform policy.

Another group of parents in Wilson County, Tenn., is hoping to raise public awareness of the controversial dress code policy at area schools.

Last July the Wilson County School Board adopted a mandatory school dress code policy, which requires navy, khaki, hunter green or black bottoms and “solid white navy blue or hunter green [collared] shirts.”

The Wilson County Parents Coalition, on its Web site, quotes Henry David Thoreau, saying “Beware all enterprises that require new clothes.”

Shortly after the school board approved the new dress code policy, Shirley Cox and Therese Harmon formed Parents Against Mandatory Uniforms to object to the dress code policy and the way it was passed. Cox and Harmon now call their group the Wilson County Parents Coalition.

“They are taking away our children's right to freedom of expression,” Cox said.

Earlier this week, Cox's oldest daughter, ninth-grader Lenai Brady, was given in-school suspension for wearing a University of Tennessee T-shirt. Cox said her three younger children and other students also were punished this week, either given in-school detention or sent home — for violating the dress code.

Cox says she and the other members of the Wilson County Parents Coalition are hoping to file a lawsuit. “We need to file a class action lawsuit to defend our rights and to make the public aware of what is actually happening here,” she said.

“When children are pulled out of school and searched simply because they are out of uniform, that is a violation of their constitutional rights,” Cox said.

“This is a violation of our parental rights because I believe that part of my God-given rights is to raise my children,” Cox said. “It is my job as their mother to instill their moral and religious values. I do not want the school system telling them what is appropriate to wear.

“Under the First Amendment, as long as you do anything that is not affecting or infringing on someone else's right, you should be able to do that,” she said. “My child wearing a UT shirt is not infringing on anyone else's rights.

“I am willing to go to jail to protect my child's rights and I am not alone,” Cox said.

Other groups of parents have taken legal action to protect what they view as infringements on their First Amendment rights. More than 20 parents have joined together to challenge a mandatory school uniform policy in Jackson County, Miss.

In Brody v. The Jackson County School Board, the parents claim that “requiring students to wear particular clothing interferes with students' right of freedom of expression and personal liberty.” On Aug. 10, the parents filed more papers with a federal court supporting their motion for a preliminary injunction to halt enforcement of the dress code.

Many of the parents believe that schools are not helping kids by making them all dress alike. In legal papers, Carol Brody, the lead plaintiff in the Mississippi lawsuit, states: “I want my children to experience and learn how to accept and live with the diversity of our society so they will be prepared for it when they are adults.”

Her husband, Phil Brody, says that “the institution of a mandatory uniform policy within a public school symbolizes a deprivation of freedom.”

Another group of parents has challenged a similar school uniform policy in Bossier City, La. In Canady v. Bossier Parish School Board, the parents claimed that the school policy violated the “First Amendment right to free speech, free and open expression and religious freedom because it denies freedom of expression in personal appearance and amounts to forced speech and appearance similar to totalitarian regimes.”

However, a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit earlier this week.

The struggle over school uniforms appears to be growing. Gary Peter Klahr, a Phoenix-based attorney who has handled several student uniform cases, calls Southern parents' resistance to school uniforms the “Southern Uniform Rebellion.”

Klahr contends that mandatory uniform policies and strict dress codes are a “gross infringement” on students' and parents' First Amendment rights. “The U.S. Supreme Court in Tinker ruled that students do not lose their constitutional rights to freedom of expression at the schoolhouse gate,” he said. “However, school officials are stripping students of their free-expression rights when they enter the schoolhouse gate.”