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RI ACLU Challenges Woonsocket School Uniform Policy

Posted: August 18, 2010|Category: Students' Rights

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The Rhode Island ACLU has today filed an appeal with the Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education to contest the planned implementation of a mandatory school uniform policy in Woonsocket public schools. The complaint, filed by RI ACLU volunteer attorney John W. Dineen, is on behalf of four parents – Monique Richard, Lisa Desplaines, Angela Lemoine and Tiffany Johnson – and their children. Although the policy is effective September 1st, the ACLU has been advised by school officials that it will not be enforced for thirty days.

Among other restrictions, the new policy allows students to wear only black or khaki pants; white, brown or black shoes; and only maroon or gray shirts with no writing on them except for school logos. School principals are given discretion to waive the policy for “specific purposes” or to “specific groups for events.” On behalf of the named plaintiffs, the appeal argues:

“Plaintiffs and their minor children object to any mandated school uniform; they agree with the statement in the prior Woonsocket policy that “dress is a matter of taste”; they object to the additional costs that will be imposed on limited budgets to purchase numerous items that will be worn only at school and will therefore be an addition to clothing expenses; they object to the restrictions on expression and choice inherent in a uniform, the restriction of writing to only school related or approved expression such as ROTC, and to the undefined and unrestricted discretion of administrators to grant waivers.”

The appeal claims that the new policy amounts to “a de facto educational fee” since the “addition of numerous required items of clothing specifically for school imposes a significant financial burden.” The appeal further argues that the students’ “rights to freedom of expression and choice in their dress are unduly restricted by a uniform policy, which goes beyond legitimate and minimum safety and educational concerns,” and that “enactment of a uniform dress code only for the students of Woonsocket, restricting what would otherwise be their freedom of expression and dress,” denies them their right to equal protection of the laws. The appeal seeks invalidation of the dress code.

ACLU attorney Dineen said: “When times are tough, there is the urge to enforce conformity, to enforce uniformity, even uniforms. It’s been tried many times, in this country and others. It doesn’t work, and it leads down a dangerous road. Civil liberties are not just for comfortable times.” RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown added: “We reject the knee-jerk notion that simplistic policies like mandatory school uniforms can somehow help address the deep-seated academic and financial problems that urban schools like Woonsocket face. Empirical research on school uniforms confirms that skepticism. Uniforms may be useful in prison and the military, but they are totally out of place in our public schools, and a diversion from the more challenging steps that must be taken in an effort to better those schools.”

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