To take action or leave it alone – that was the question up for debate at the school board’s monthly meeting last week regarding how to handle El Campo ISD students’ dress code violations until May.

On March 23, ECISD Superintendent Bob Callaghan asked trustees to weigh in on recent issues with some students not following the district’s dress code. The main issue, district leaders said, has been with students hiding dress code violations, like piercings and facial hair, behind their face masks or the length of their hair under gators – bandana-like coverings that wrap around the wearer’s neck.

“When kids have been walking around with masks on all year or gators – it’s real easy when you’re wearing a gator to hide your hair,” Callaghan said.

The district’s current dress code policy prohibits male students from wearing piercings, and no students are allowed to wear piercings in places other than the ear. Students are not allowed to have facial hair, specifically mustaches or beards, and male students are not allowed hair long enough to touch their shirt collar.

“We want to make sure we are following the community’s guidance on how they want to be represented out in the community and how they want our students to represent them,” Callaghan said.

Some trustees were in favor of continuing to enforce the dress code for the remainder of the 2020-2021 school year.

“If this is what we have voted upon as a school board, it should be adhered (to),” Trustee Susan Nohavitza said. “If we want to address it … in the summer between school years, we can readdress it.”

If campus employees stop enforcing dress code policies, like hair length, halfway through the spring semester, that would be unfair to the students who were asked to cut their hair earlier in the school year, Nohavitza added.

Trustee Greg Anderson supported changes to the district’s current dress code in the future. As for this year, asking kids to get a haircut could put an added burden on parents, Anderson said, since many have been cutting their kids’ hair at home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If it becomes a discipline problem, then we have to police you … Some of this stuff I think is overkill, especially going into what we’re into now (the ongoing pandemic),” Anderson said.

Before the start of the school year in August, trustees relaxed the ECISD dress code, concerning shirts students can wear. Previously, only high school students were allowed to wear t-shirts, but the policy was changed after parents voiced concerns over the financial hardships of buying dress code-approved shirts amid the pandemic.

Schools are able to make more dress code requirements for students involved in voluntary extracurricular activities or events, ECISD leaders said, but Texas schools may eventually be required to change hair policies for the general student population.

In the August 2020 court case De’Andre Arnold v. Barbers Hill ISD, a U.S. district judge deemed the Texas school district’s dress code requiring only male students, but not female students, to keep their hair short in violation of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. The judge also ruled such policies can be racially discriminatory.

Since the ruling, Texas schools have waited to see if they would eventually be required to alter dress code policies regarding male students’ hair length.

Trustee Ed Erwin said he supports dress code rules against facial hair and piercings, but suggested waiting to discuss the hair length issue after the school year ends.

“These students have gone through a year like none of us have ever experienced … if it’s going to be a potential legal issue, depending on what the (Texas) legislature does, I say we address it when the legislature is over and we have some time this summer,” Erwin said.

The school board did not take a formal vote after the discussion, but campus leaders ultimately said they plan to continue enforcing the dress code until May.

The school board votes on the student handbook, which includes dress code policy, changes and annually approves the document before the start of the school year.

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