ALLENTOWN, Pa. - With some reluctance, the Allentown School District plans to loosen the belt on its one-year-old mandatory dress code policy for students-- but only by a colorful notch or two.
The district also intends to prohibit ASD students and employees from having or using "vapor products" – defined as atomizers or other devices that vaporize a flavored solution, which may or may not contain nicotine.
"Such products include, but are not limited to, electronic cigarettes or e-cigarettes, person vaporizers and electronic nicotine delivery systems," according to ASD's draft policy.
"We're just keeping up with the times," said David Wildonger, ASD's chief operations officer, who added vapor products are hitting the market across the country.
District Superintendent C. Russell Mayo added there isn't an issue with vapor products in his district and he doesn't want it to become one. "We want to get ahead of it."
The proposed ban, which also would apply to members of the public attending athletic and other events held by the school district, will be voted on at the school board's next meeting at 7:30 p.m. June 26.
The dress code change does not require school board approval.
Both issues were discussed during a series of three board committee-of-a-whole meetings Thursday night.
During the meetings, Frank Nickischer, a retiring teacher who is president pro tem of Allentown Education Association, the teachers union, complained to the school board that ASD's classrooms and schools "are dangerous – with assaults, vulgarity and disrespect. I pray we don't face a future catastrophe."
Dr. Tina Belardi, the district's chief academic officer, explained the administration intends to make changes to the student uniform policy that involve belts, shoes, sweaters and cold-weather layering:
Children in kindergarten through second grades no longer will be required to wear belts, but belts still must be worn by those in third grade and above.
Pants for those younger students often have elastic waists and no belt loops, said Belardi. She added the current requirement "poses a problem for those little fingers that can't manipulate the belt buckle quickly enough."
In addition to white, black and brown shoes, another change will allow any combination of a school's colors to be incorporated into shoes, said Belardi.
At Allen High School for example, the school's colors are yellow and blue. Next fall, Allen students will be permitted to wear shoes containing any combination of brown, black, white, tan (also new), royal blue and yellow.
At Dieruff High, where the school colors are blue and gray, students will be allowed any combination of brown, black, white, tan, gray or navy blue.
Belardi said more color options also will be allowed for sweaters, but sweaters with zippers will not be allowed "to curtail the wearing of outer garments during school."
At the elementary school level, for example, students will be allowed to wear tan, brown and light blue sweaters, in addition to navy, black, gray or white -- the previously allowed colors.
Despite the ban on zippered sweaters, the fourth change allows students to do cold-weather layering, such as thermal undershirts and coats, as long as it is consistent with "the palette of colors" allowed at each grade level or school.
Belardi said parents will be informed of the changes and the district's code of conduct will be updated to reflect them.
In 2012, said Belardi, surveys showed 85 percent of parents wanted school uniforms. She said the policy has helped develop school pride among students.
Board member Scott Armstrong declared that going from a no-uniform district to a uniform district in one year has been a huge success.
"The community really appreciates it, the parents appreciate it and, surprisingly, the students do."
Armstrong called the recommendations "common sense" and predicted there will be fewer infractions every year. "We're just tweaking the shoe thing."
Armstrong said there were a lot of complaints from parents that their children could not get warm enough in classrooms this winter.
Too many choices?
Board member Michael Welsh expressed concern that the district is watering down its uniform policy.
Welsh also questioned if a growing number of choices is going to make enforcement more difficult for teachers. He also indicated the district may be making things more difficult for students who were ready to "buy in" to the program.
"I have to confess that some of those same thoughts went through my mind," said Mayo.
"I don't want to bend too much that we start compromising and blurring the line on what we're trying to do. Who can remember all of it? Teachers and administrators are not going to have lists in front of them. If it gets beyond what you can remember, we're back to the old way."
But the superintendent also said: "I do think it is reasonable that the colors are related to school colors and potentially can build some school spirit.
"The outerwear did become a major problem as soon as the winter hit. When I talked to principals, they said ‘the kids are cold'."
Dress code enforcement
Board member Debra Lamb suggested that giving students more leeway, especially with shoes, may reduce the number of dress code infractions.
Mayo predicted it's going to take a few years "for us to get this where we really want it, particularly at the high schools. We have had challenges at the high schools."
Students who don't comply with the dress code are sent to ATS, the district's in-school Alternative-to-Suspension program.
Board member Ce-Ce Gerlach said she knows of a couple of student who repeatedly get sent to ATS because they don't comply with the dress code. She added ATS is overwhelmed with students who don't comply.
Mayo could not say what percent of high school students repeatedly fail to meet the dress code. "I know it's high enough that we need to work on it quite a bit."
He indicated as younger students move up through the grades, they will be more accustomed to wearing school uniforms and there will be much more compliance when they get to high school.
Dress code cover-up?
"Don't be swindled by the dress code cover-up," Nickischer of the teachers union told the school board.
He said ATS averages 30-40 students a day, later adding that is 30-40 students in each middle school and high school. He said they are sent there for blatant misbehavior.
"ATS is not loaded with dress code violations," Nickischer said.
He said some students have been written up and sent to ATS more than 100 times.
Nickischer, who serves on ASD's safety steering committee, reported too many schools in the district are failing to hold regular safety meetings. He said others have safety meetings that are monopolized by administrators and teachers and do not involve parents and non-teaching staff members.
Warning of a catastrophe, Nickischer indicated student infractions "are up as high as three-fold this year versus last year." He said teachers have told him "the data would be far worse, but they have stopped reporting due to lack of support and inconsistent outcomes."
"Once again, you can ignore it and take no action," he told the school board. "I recommend revisiting the ASD mission statement about a safe educational experience."
Pregnant and parenting students
The school district also plans to update its policy on pregnant and parenting students, for the first time since 1999.
The updated version states that students may not be excluded from their home schools solely based on pregnancy, parenting or marital status.
It eliminates language in the current policy that ASD educational operations director Michael Makhoul said were exclusionary. He said pregnant students no longer will be sent to alternative education sites.
The new policy also provide pregnant and parenting students additional time for class changes, alternatives to physical education requirements, use of elevators if recommended by a doctor and excused leaves of absence.
Allentown, PA 18102