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School uniforms for ‘safety’s sake’

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By Ron Leir

Observer Correspondent

NORTH ARLINGTON –

Starting this September, the borough’s public school students will be occupied with shaking off the summer recess high, adjusting to new classes and teachers, and … paying attention to how they look.

That’s because the North Arlington Board of Education – following the lead of other school districts around the country – has adopted a uniform policy.

By a 3-1 vote, with Anthony Blanco the lone dissenter, (George Rosco was absent, attending to another school-related matter), the board voted June 3 to approve mandatory school uniforms for kindergarten to 12th grade.

However, at this point, the board has announced no concept for what the set uniform will look like for boys or girls, even color-wise. Board President George McDermott said that principals at each of the five schools have been asked to form committees of staff and parents and/or guardians to come up with suggestions to be presented to the board.

Parents and/or guardians will have to buy the uniforms at a price as yet unsettled and from vendors yet to be designated.

“Failure to wear the proper uniform will result in disciplinary action,” says the board policy resolution, but the board has yet to determine how the policy will be enforced.

Superintendent of Schools Oliver Stringham said that, among other things, uniforms will help “maintain an effective learning environment,” allow for “easy identification of students and nonstudents for safety (and) prevent gang influence regarding clothing and insignia,” improve discipline and ease “peer pressure” about wearing certain styles.

The uniform mandate supplements an existing “dress and grooming” policy implemented in 2008 which bans such items as exposed underwear, Spandex or biker shorts, midriffs, halters, transparent blouses or shirts, fishnets, “torn or ripped clothing that is deemed too revealing,” and any garments bearing wording that is “vulgar, lewd, obscene or plainly offensive.”

This prohibition even extends to clothing “which contains a message that is ungrammatical, poorly written, inadequately researched, biased, prejudiced … or unsuitable for immature audiences.”

McDermott, a borough police officer who, like Police Chief Louis Ghione, strongly favors the new policy as a way of enhancing school safety, said the board has been considering putting one into place since the 2006-2007 school year when parents were surveyed about it.

Since then, however, Mc- Dermott said, “we’ve had the attacks in (Newtown) Connecticut and we’ve seen the amount of school security increase across the country. I’d rather be proactive by doing something to keep our kids safer than have a parent being upset with me because their kid was hurt or killed.”

McDermott said the district was “also looking at [dress code] options for our administrators to set an example for our kids.” He didn’t elaborate.

“We’re not putting this policy in place to hurt anyone,” McDermott said. If anything, he said, it should dissuade kids from “bullying” peers, just because they happen to be wearing clothing purchased from a discount retailer.

“Uniforms aren’t what makes kids’ personalities,” McDermott said. “That starts at home and, hopefully, is reinforced at school.”

Allowing students to dress in a helter-skelter manner serves only as “a deterrent to education,” McDermott asserted. “Since the weather has turned warm, we’ve had an average of 15 to 20 kids a day sent to the principal’s office for dress code violations,” he said. “If you figure 15 minutes per child for getting pulled out of class, having to report to an administrator and so forth, that’s a total of five hours of education time lost!”

Although it will be up to parents and/or guardians to bear the uniform cost, the board policy resolution predicts that they’ll actually save money in the long run by avoiding catering to kids’ clamoring for more expensive garments.

“However,” the resolution notes, “fundraising opportunities, community donation programs and corporate scholarships will defray the cost of the school uniforms for economically disadvantaged students.”

McDermott said the district has “reached out to PTA and the North Arlington Education Foundation” to ask them to consider setting aside funds for needier families who may require assistance but his expectation is that few will ask, based on similar efforts in Harrison and Lyndhurst.

How many other districts in the state have adopted uniform rules is hard to say. The New Jersey School Boards Association doesn’t track such trends but the National Center for Education Statistics has reported that, as of 2009-2010, the most recent year available, nearly 19% of schools nationwide require students to wear uniforms and nearly 57% of principals reported having a “strict dress code.”

Meanwhile, in a follow-up to the public’s approval to spend $3.1 million for upgrading Rip Collins Field, the board authorized advertising for soil test borings at the project site to check for any environmental contamination. “It’s part of our due diligence,” McDermott said.

By summer’s end, McDermott said he expected that the board would contract for the demolition of “our old buildings” at the project site.

Last month, Board Secretary/ Business Administrator Kathleen Marano reported to the board that Valley National Bank had agreed to purchase $1,150,000 in notes at an interest rate of 0.58%, to be repaid by Dec. 4, as a “partial drawdown” of money required for the Collins Field project.

At the June 3 meeting, the board also approved the hiring of Jennifer Rodriquez to replace Nicole Russo as principal of Jefferson Elementary School. Russo was named last month to replace Dan DiGuglielmo, who is retiring June 30 after spending the last decade as Middle School principal and after 35 years as an educator in the district.

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