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Students Stage Walkout to Protest Dress Code : Schools: More than 200 march to district headquarters to say the restrictions infringe on their rights. Officials say they are trying to keep teen-agers safe.

March 24, 1994|DEBORAH SULLIVAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Wearing baggy pants, crop tops, flannel shirts and hats, Monrovia High School students marched to the district office Tuesday morning to protest a dress code that bans such clothing.

Students at Monrovia are prohibited from wearing clothes associated with gangs, including oversized pants, belt buckles with initials, wool shirts over white T-shirts, jackets with sports team logos, blue or red shoelaces and all hats. Also banned are T-shirts advertising cigarettes and alcohol, and sexually provocative clothing.

Although the dress code has been part of district policy for four years, the school recently apprised teachers of it and prepared pamphlets explaining the rule to parents.

Before those flyers were even sent out, students staged a protest. More than 200 of them walked out of class around 9 a.m. Tuesday, gathering at the district office about a mile away until buses arrived an hour later to return them to school.

While the California Education Code states that "gang-related apparel shall not be considered a protected form of speech," students say Monrovia administrators have taken that too far, defined gang-related clothes too broadly and failed to include students in the decision.

"They're trying to inflict a dress code on us, and they didn't discuss it with us, they just imposed it on us," said Faith Del Regno, a senior wearing a white crop top and peace symbol necklace. "They're taking away our freedom of expression, and that's in the Constitution."

Others resent the suggestion that they are involved in gang violence.

"We're mad because they say that because we wear baggy clothes we hide weapons in them," freshman Brian Lee said. "Why would we want to bring guns?"

Dr. Marigrace Fahey, director of pupil services, said the dress code is not intended to punish suspected gang members, but to protect students from actual gangs who may target them for their clothing.

"The idea is not that they're members of gangs, but this is gang attire and we don't want them to become victims," she explained.

Vicki Morlock, whose son Keith participated in the walkout, thinks energy devoted to dress code enforcement would be better spent on academics.

"If you say they can't wear red and blue, they'll change the color tomorrow," she said. "What are they going to do, strip them of clothes and send them to school naked? They need to worry about how these kids are being educated."

Students also take issue with the way dress code infractions are handled. To test whether pants are too big, they said, school officials remove the belt. If the pants drop, the student flunks the test.

And some say the code is enforced unfairly, with Latino students disciplined more strictly than white students in the same apparel.

That's not true, said assistant principal Casey Johnson.

"We do not single kids out by race," he said. "We have to look at kids in terms of what they wear. . . . Kids have lost a sense of what's appropriate, and most parents don't hassle their kids about what they wear. We've got to look at what keeps kids safe."

Subtle variations in teen attire sometimes escape the adult eye, he conceded. Walkout participants said the blanket prohibitions in the code should have been negotiated with students.

Students and administrators met Tuesday afternoon to try to reach a compromise.

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