Kanawha teachers protest proposed dress code policy

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By Mackenzie Mays
The Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia's teachers unions are protesting a dress code proposed by the Kanawha County school board that would regulate when teachers can wear blue jeans, and would ban shorts, T-shirts, flip-flops and some other clothing items.

The first draft of the policy -- unveiled in special session Thursday -- also requires hair and nails to be clean and neatly groomed, and beards and mustaches "to be neatly trimmed."

Tattoos are to be covered "at all times, when possible," and "excess or oversized" piercings other than on the ears are not permitted, according to the policy.

The problem is that the policy contradicts itself, said Steve Shamblin, a teacher at Riverside High School and a member of the state's chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.

"There's no glossary. It's too ambiguous," said Shamblin, who wore dark jeans, a sweater and a collared shirt to Thursday's meeting -- his usual school uniform.

While the policy says jeans that are not faded and have no visible tears or frays are considered appropriate, it also puts blue jeans on its list of unacceptable clothing items. The policy also says jeans are acceptable for specific projects or activities.

The policy bans dresses that are shorter than mid-thigh, tight or "otherwise revealing," in addition to banning Spandex, tank tops and sweat suits.

Shamblin, who wore a suit and tie when he worked in business for 14 years before becoming a teacher, said the policy just isn't logical for what teachers face on an everyday basis.

"In no time when I was dressed at that professional level did I deal with 180 students a day, did I have to do bus duty, lunch duty, hall duty and, at a moment's notice, have to sit down on the floor because of a safety drill," he said. "If I've got to wear dress clothes to do those kind of activities, then that is inappropriate for what my job calls for."

Kanawha County Schools tried to impose a dress code for teachers more than a decade ago, but failed.

Currently, there's no specific dress code policy for teachers in the county, but a teacher's professional appearance is included in their evaluation.

School board member Becky Jordon, who proposed the policy, said Thursday that she's traveled to schools across the country that impose dress codes and that, while the majority of the area's teachers dress appropriately, the ones who don't should be reprimanded.

"I have seen some employees wearing what our students are banned to wear. This is a double standard," Jordon said. "Dress codes are common throughout our workplaces . . .  . The purpose of the dress code is not to micromanage or create any undue hardship.

"All we're asking is that the staff dress in a manner that makes us proud of the Kanawha County school system. We're looked at as a leader in West Virginia, and we want to be the best."

Donna Hanshew, a teacher at Hayes Middle who has taught for 30 years, said the school system has bigger issues -- pointing to the recent water crisis caused by a chemical leak into the Elk River and faulty school building conditions.

"When you've got schools that are falling down -- literally falling down around you -- and then you're making a big deal out of a dress code for teachers, what does that say about your priorities?" Hanshew said. "We're still trying to get the water situation fixed. Children still won't drink out of the water fountains, and they're not going to provide us with any more water. Those are the issues, because that's what really is affecting our children. How I dress isn't, unless I am a distraction, and then my principal will deal with that."

Hanshew said the policy is demeaning for teachers.

"It makes you feel like you're not considered a professional," she said. "It's just like everything else -- you deal with the people who are the problem; you don't need to punish the majority. It's just like in school -- you don't punish the whole class for what one student did."

AFT-WV filed a grievance on behalf of four teachers in Lewis County last year, where a dress code for teachers was approved that banned blue jeans and shorts.

The county's branch of the West Virginia Education Association also is speaking out against the policy.

People were not allowed to speak about the issue in public delegations at Thursday's special session, but the policy will be revisited next month in a regular board meeting.