Draft policy on school uniforms advancing

Henrico County Public Schools officials are finalizing a policy that would allow individual schools in the county to propose voluntary or mandatory uniform policies for their students.

The draft plan is being created as the School Board’s response to inquiries from several elementary school principals who are interested in establishing their own uniform programs.

The draft outlines a number of criteria that a school would need to meet in order to implement such policies. It requires that a school considering uniform policies:

• send educational materials home to parents and provide material on its website; • hold at least two information sessions to solicit thoughts from parents;

• inform parents of all plans and activities through electronic notification systems;

• provide a cost analysis of such options for families to review;

• receive endorsement of the plan from at least 85 percent of its professional staff members;

• survey at least 85 percent of families and receive endorsement from at least 85 percent of those.

A handful of elementary schools in the eastern portion of the county currently have voluntary uniform policies. Most have participation from more than 70 percent of students, according to HCPS Director of Elementary Education Pam Bell – in part because of incentive-based rewards for students who participate.

The success of the programs has caused some of those principals to inquire about how to consider mandatory policies, while principals at other schools have asked about voluntary policies, she said.

There are a number of perceived benefits to uniform policies, Deputy Superintendent Pat Kinlaw told the School Board during a Jan. 13 work session. Uniforms may increase student safety; help bridge socio-economic gaps in some schools; promote good student behavior and inclusiveness; allow students to concentrate more on their work; and enhance the learning environment.

But the use of uniforms also could reduce student individuality and freedom of expression, opponents of such policies argue.

During the past several months, school officials have met with focus groups of parents, teachers and principals from each of the schools that currently have voluntary programs, Kinlaw said.

They’ve also reviewed uniform policies from other school divisions and reviewed U.S. and Virginia Department of Education guidelines, as well as Code of Virginia language, he said.

By establishing a general policy to outline the steps individuals schools must take in order to invoke uniform policies, the School Board would protect itself legally and would not need to set a blanket voluntary or mandatory policy countywide, School Board attorney Melissa Velasquez told the board in October.

The general policy also would protect the School Board from lawsuits related to First Amendment rights, Velasquez said.

“We think that it’s neutral enough that it would survive a First Amendment challenge,” she said.

The draft policy suggests that any uniform policies that are adopted begin at the start of a new school year, to allow for a smooth transition and preparation process beginning in April and leading up to the first day of school in September.

Students at any school that adopts a mandatory uniform policy would be permitted to transfer to a nearby school that does not have such a policy, Kinlaw said. Families would be responsible for transporting their students to the new school.

A large number of transfer requests would be unlikely, he said, because many of the students who didn’t endorse the plan likely would adhere to it anyway, rather than switch schools. Research conducted by HCPS officials of other districts that utilize mandatory policies concluded as much, he said. Bell said that Henrico has witnessed the same scenario among elementary students whose parents initially opposed voluntary policies but now send their children to school in uniforms anyway.

Adoption of a mandatory policy by a school would require penalties for students who did not wear their uniforms. The draft policy suggests that first-time offenders receive a change of clothes from an in-school “clothes closet” of uniforms and a call to their parents or guardians. Second and third offenders would be picked up by their parents and taken home, and fourth-time offenders would be reassigned to schools without uniforms.

Though the draft uniform policy is intended for elementary schools, it would be available to middle schools or high schools as well. School Board members theorized that none of the county’s middle or high schools would come close to meeting the 85 percent threshold necessary to enact a policy, however.

The draft policy will be available for review and public comment for 30 days on the school system’s website – http://www.henrico.k12.va.us. Officials will gather comments and then report back to the School Board in the coming weeks.
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