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Skimpy styles spur dress code scrutiny

Walk through the hallways of any middle or high school in the region and you see students who push school dress codes to the limit. There are halter tops and bare midriffs, thong underwear peeking above ultra low-cut jeans, and bright-colored bras shining through sheer shirts.

"It's getting out of control," said Wareham High School principal John Amaral. "We have a dress code set by Hollywood."

Or by Britney Spears. Ever since the pop princess danced seductively in a modified school uniform for a 1999 music video, fashion for teenage girls has meant increasingly revealing clothing. Add that to the barrage of magazine, movie, and television images of scantily clad women, and you get what some local school officials call a battle over bellybuttons.

Concern about appropriate school dress -- for boys as well as girls -- has led at least one area school district to tighten its dress code. Students at the high school and middle school in Norton will return next month to new specific dress standards that include the directive that "no underwear should be visible."

Norton High School assistant principal Ray Dewar said the changes, which require the straps on tank tops to be at least three fingers in width and the length of skirts and shorts to fall below a student's fingertips when their arms are at their sides, were made to reduce distractions.

It's a distraction that teachers and administrators say becomes more problematic each year, especially when the weather is warm. While every generation has its share of school dress code battles, school officials say the difference now is the large numbers of students pushing boundaries of new fashion trends.

"Teachers are now reduced to being the clothes police; a lot of time and energy that could be spent on teaching is spent on monitoring whether or not they're keeping to the letter of the dress code," said Elizabeth Englander, an associate professor of psychology at Bridgewater State College who specializes in child development. "A lot of people in education feel everyone could focus a lot more on education if we were focusing a lot less on whether her shirt is showing her bellybutton."

Englander, who lives in Sharon and is married to a public school teacher, said she believes the problem is greater among girls.

"Girls discover the power inherent in their sexuality and see that it's very powerful to be attractive," Englander said. "Power fascinates children of all ages, but boys come to it earlier with the powers of wrestling or comic book heroes. When girls hit their preteens, it's a heady kind of feeling to learn you can make people notice you through your sexuality. And it has the added advantage of being something your parents hate, which is always attractive in your early adolescence."

Colleen Less, an Easton mother of four, said she is already steeling herself for the clothes battles to come with her fourth-grade daughter. She said the dress code at town schools is too broad and vague.

"I cringe a little bit when I see some of the things fifth-grade and sixth-grade girls are wearing," Less said. "I definitely think a lot of parents here would like to see more identifiable dress standards that are enforced better."

But while some parents would like stricter regulations from schools, others staunchly defend their child's right to wear certain clothing to school, officials say. Amaral, the Wareham High principal, said he spends as much time arguing with parents about the way a student is dressed as he does about "why they didn't get an A or B."

Other parents, and some students, point out that it is increasingly difficult to find clothes in stores that aren't somewhat skimpy, said Hanover's superintendent of schools, Mary Ann Jackman.

"You go down to the mall now and everything's spaghetti straps, one shoulder, backless, or bare midriff," Jackman said. "We spend a lot of time talking about that fine line between violating someone's right to wear what they want to wear and making someone wear what we think is appropriate."

Some local school administrators say they would like a statewide school dress code. While Massachusetts law states that school officials "shall not abridge the rights of students regarding personal dress and appearance unless [it] violates reasonable standards for health, safety and cleanliness," the state Department of Education leaves dress code standards -- and the punishment for violations -- up to the discretion of local school districts.

"Our dress code is backwards; we're too busy saying what you can't wear," said Amaral. "I think the state of Massachusetts should come up with what you can wear and make everyone wear it. The stores will react to that."

Pedro Noguera, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, agrees that schools need to "do everything possible to deemphasize clothing." He said the overwhelming influence being placed on children's clothing has caused schools to become the stage for fashion shows.

"It results in kids who can't afford the $100 pair of shoes to feel ashamed, or to go to great lengths to get those things, like stealing or working jobs they don't need, all of which accounts for less time spent on the business of school," Noguera said.

Danielle Kneppel, a junior at Sharon High School, has seen that firsthand. She said many students, especially girls, feel pressure to own the right brands -- such as a Coach handbag, a Tiffany bracelet, or a Juicy Couture velour jumpsuit.

"I know a lot of girls who think clothes define who they are," Kneppel said. "People look at Jennifer Lopez in that dress or the Abercrombie and Fitch models and think that skimpy clothing looks good. Once they start wearing them, girls get a lot of attention and they like that."

Or they wear them to fit in better, said Premwantie Lee, a junior at Brockton High School.

"You see . . . videos coming out with the girls in the back dancing in bootie shorts and tube tops or getting out of pools in a low-cut bikini," she said. "People think they're not cool if they don't dress that way too."

Marshfield High School teacher Brian Shacochis said he believes movies, television commercials and music may not be the "evil demon" spoken of by politicians, but agrees that they hold a "phenomenally powerful sway" over what teenagers wear. As a young, male teacher, he said he sometimes feels uncomfortable with the provocative clothes worn by some female students.

"That tension would not be a factor if parents and administrators were more mindful of strict dress regulations in the school," he said.

During an end-of-the-year poetry slam organized by Shacochis at his school, the English teacher referenced the dress issue in a poem he wrote called "Secondary Education." It reads:

I see girls dressed like women walk around these halls everyday

But it's not my place to judge, man, I'm just a teacher, so hey

All I can say is, "Slow down! The world's gonna be there when you're ready."

Joanna Massey can be reached at massey@globe.com.

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