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Clarifying the code: School board discusses changes to dress code for students

BEMIDJI — Clarifications to the Bemidji High School dress code was among the most-debated topics Monday at the district’s School Board meeting.

Having to approve the student handbook for every school in the district each year, district Superintendent Dr. James Hess sought the board’s approval of the 2013-2014 student handbooks, but was met with a variety of concerns before the board unanimously passed the motion.

Discrepancies between the Bemidji High School’s student handbook and the Bemidji Middle School handbook were under fire from some board members because they do not outline the same dress code standards.

According to Brian Stefanich, principal at Bemidji High School, the two handbooks are designed to fit the needs of each school, and are not necessarily a collaborative effort between the two schools.

The high school’s dress code was amended in recent years to address the concern of inappropriate dress, such as exposing too much skin and attire representing different gangs.

“Ours (the dress code) is working for us,” he said. “I don’t see a reason to address something that is not working.”

Stefanich told the board that administrators “continually monitor our dress policies, as we have monthly meetings to go over these kinds of things and if they are working. The policy wasn’t built overnight,” he said.

The lengths of shorts was one of the clothing styles that initially created the need for an amended dress code. In the past, the high school enforced a policy in regard to shorts was a “finger tip” rule, which meant a student’s shorts be no higher than their fingertips when having their arms at their side.

Stefanich said that policy proved difficult to enforce fairly because of the varying heights of students. The rule now is students’ shorts must be no higher than knee length.

Board members also received clarification to policies between the high school’s listed consequences for failure to follow the dress code and the district’s code of conduct consequences. “We (the district) try to have reasonable general guidelines and allow people to use their common sense,” Hess said. “It’s important for the students to know the dress code, know the consequences and give them a choice.”

Providing further clarification, Hess said the code of conduct is fairly broad, while the schools are able to get more specific in setting certain rules and fine-tuning what has already been outlined.

“We still offer a great amount of freedom of expression,” Hess said. “Apparel is really a method of expression for students.”

BHS student representative Emma Walters was asked to address the board on her observations since the amended dress code transition.

“It’s a great dress code,” she said. “You’re in school to learn, and if you can’t follow the dress code, it’s going to be a problem.”

Walters added that many of her peers weren’t too upset with the change, and that the new shorts rule really helped to add clarity to the once-confusing rule.

Shifting to a similar topic, Stefanich mentioned the recent ban on backpacks within classrooms, and how the high school’s decision to provide backpacks for students to bring to class was not as successful as administrators would have liked.

According to Stefanich, the backpacks didn’t last the entire year and posed evacuation problems, which is why the school will be providing stringed backpacks that fit underneath desks for students to bring to class.

“The new backpack rule raised more of a stir among students than the dress code did,” Stefanich said. “Anytime you have a change like this, you’re going to get complaints.”