PLAISTOW, N.H. — As the sun slips behind the clouds, a cool breeze makes the leaves dance and chills the air. But Elizabeth Skerry, engrossed in a subject that has preoccupied her for the past month, seems not to notice the fading light and plummeting temperatures.
Dressed in a cap-sleeve blouse and black knee-skimming skirt, she is talking about the new student dress code at her high school. The policy, drafted by faculty over the summer, expressly prohibits sleeveless shirts.
Bare shoulders, the administrators posit, are a distraction at the 1,413-student Timberlane Regional High School in Plaistow, N.H.
“I don’t see how shoulders are a distraction,” said Skerry, who was branded a scofflaw by high school principal Donald H. Woodworth for wearing her cap-sleeve blouse to class the first day of school. “But that’s what the administrators keep saying, ‘Bare arms are a distraction in class.’”
Upset and embarrassed, Skerry, a straight-A student who speaks with a maturity that belies her 17 years, took her case to the School Board on Sept. 20 and has launched an online campaign to amend the dress code. Her Facebook page, wittily dubbed “The Right to BARE Arms,” promotes a petition that asks school officials to allow students to don sensible sleeveless dresses and tops. Nearly 300 students have signed it.
“In a school with limited air conditioning, for optimum learning to take place, the students need to be comfortable,” the petition states. It urges the administration to “take all necessary action to reinstate sleeveless tops and dresses” into the dress code, including “all sleeveless shirts and dresses that cover the bra strap and Timberlane sports jerseys.”
Superintendent Earl F. Metzler 2d, who took over leadership of the Timberlane and Hampstead school systems Aug. 28, said the dress code was drafted by the high school’s climate committee, a body that was formed over the summer to improve the learning environment in the building.
In addition to updating the school’s dress code, the committee also adopted a new attendance policy, School Board members said.
The high school, which serves the communities of Atkinson, Danville, Plaistow, and Sandown, has been identified as a “school in need of improvement” for failing to meet federal benchmarks for student performance on the New England Common Assessment Program exam, the equivalent of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test.
The goal of the new policies was to make the school’s expectations clear, Metzler said. According to Timberlane Regional School Board chairman Robert Collins, a Danville resident who has been on the board since 2008, the previous dress code included vague language that made enforcement difficult.
Under the new policy on proper attire, all students are “required to wear tops . . . that have sleeves, a modest neckline . . . and that are long enough to cover beyond their waist. The length of shorts, skirts, or dresses may be no shorter than mid-thigh.”
Students who violate the dress code are asked to change their clothing and may face disciplinary action, including detention and administrative probation, according to Timberlane’s student handbook. Skerry and her supporters like to point out that many female role models — including Michelle Obama, British actress and humanitarian Audrey Hepburn, and singer-songwriter Taylor Swift — often favor sleeveless fashions.
“If the first lady can show her shoulders, my daughters can too,” wrote Sandy Desmond, a follower of the Facebook page. “This is not acceptable! The school should focus more on empowering our daughters to be strong, intelligent, and independant [sic],” she wrote.
Skerry, a junior nicknamed Bitsy who is serving her third year as secretary for the class of 2014, has attracted national attention as news outlets as far away as California report on her campaign. One woman from nearby Kingston, N.H., said she was so impressed by Skerry that she named her pet chicken Bitsy, after the English honor society student.
But at Timberlane, Metzler said there has been an outpouring of support for a dress code.
“Many students and parents appreciate that we’re making it clear that we have high expectations,” he said.
There have been few violations of the dress code and no harsh disciplinary actions have been necessary, he said.
After Skerry addressed the School Board, Metzler asked Woodworth to reconvene the climate committee to review the new dress code — this time, with student input.
“I was very impressed with Bitsy’s presentation,” Metzler said. “She exercised her right to voice her opinion in a very respectful manner. I want to encourage student involvement, not just at the high school, but at all schools.”
The climate committee met on Oct. 4 with Skerry and members of the high school’s student council and peer outreach program. Although Skerry suggested school officials conduct a student survey to assess the impact of the dress code, no decisions regarding the policy were made at that meeting. The committee continues to examine the mandate, according to school officials.
“Dress codes define the basic standards for the community, not to control the students but to promote safe and productive learning environments,” said Mark V. Joyce, executive director of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association, an organization that represents more than 300 school system leaders, including superintendents, assistant superintendents, and finance directors.
“Every decade has had its challenges,” Joyce said, recalling the mini-skirts of the 1960s. “It’s up to each individual community to decide what is acceptable. In this case, student concerns are being considered by the administration. They are reviewing the matter. We just need to wait.”
As the climate committee conducts its review, Skerry and her family are weighing their options, including legal action. The new policy, they said, targets female students disproportionately and sends students the wrong message — that girls who bare their shoulders are somehow “bad.”
“It is a form of discrimination and gender bias,” said Skerry, who has a passion for public speaking and plans to be a lawyer.
Her family is behind her 100 percent, said her father, Paul.
“If the policy isn’t amended, we feel she should move forward with it and see this through,” he said.
“When the media attention dies down, which it will, Bitsy’s ultimately the one who will have to live with the decision she made to bring this issue out into the open,” said her mother, Natalie. “I am so proud of her for speaking up for something she believes in. That’s hard for many adults to do.”
“Bitsy can walk into Timberlane High School with her head held high, knowing that no matter what the outcome, she stood for something — and her voice was heard.”