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Mainland Student Dress Code Crosses Gulf to Catalina

October 20, 1994|JAMES BENNING | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

People on quiet Santa Catalina Island putter around town in their golf carts, shake their heads at the silly tourists and thank God that 26 miles of deep water separate them from the rest of crime-infested, smog-shrouded Southern California, which they refer to as "over town."

But lately life on the island hasn't been so uniformly sedate: In a roundabout way, the Southland's gang problem has found its way across the water to Catalina.

For the first time, school officials have told the island's 641 public schoolchildren that they cannot wear the traditional surf T-shirts and faded jeans to class anymore. Instead, it's light-colored shirts and dark blue or black shorts, pants or skirts.

The 80-campus Long Beach school district, which includes Catalina's two peaceful public schools, has mandated a dress code to curb gang violence and boost academic performance. The rule is being applied to the island's two schools, where the main turf war erupts when uppity sophomores dare to set foot on the seniors-only lawn.

The rule went into effect last month. Catalina Principal Mark Ur, adopted the policy, citing a study that indicates dress codes improve students' behavior, boost self-esteem and attendance.

"It's like dressing up and going to work," he said. "Their job is learning."

But many who moved to Catalina for a laid-back life among the swaying palm trees and gently rolling hills disagree.

"There are no fights here," said senior Steven Gonzalez, 18, who, in his blue shirt and white shorts, didn't quite match the policy's color codes. "Who are they to tell me what to wear? Do they really think it will solve any problems?"

The issue has divided many in the resort town of Avalon, where nearly all of the island's 3,300 residents live among the colorful minibuses, T-shirt shops and ice cream stands.

When the issue arose earlier this year, opponents circulated petitions, school officials called a special meeting with parents, and the post office, where residents gather to collect their mail, buzzed with the controversy.

But after a school survey found that a majority of parents favored the rule, officials decided to broaden the policy to include the island's high school students.

In Long Beach, only elementary and middle school students are required to follow the dress code. But Catalina officials say all students should be included. Most of the island's students--from kindergarten to high school seniors--attend Avalon School. The tiny, one-room schoolhouse across the island in Two Harbors has only 13 students enrolled.

Students in the district do have one way out. But their parents must file for an exemption, meet with the principal and then talk to a district official.

By Friday, the deadline to file for such an exemption, parents of 242 students throughout the nearly 60,000-student Long Beach district had asked that their children be excluded. More than half of those complaints--143--came from Catalina, including the parents of six children in Two Harbors.

"It makes the least sense here," said Anni Marshall, 42, who filed for exemptions for her two children in the Avalon school. "If I lived with gangs in Long Beach, I may look at it differently."

Students who don't comply could be disciplined, Ur said. They and their parents will be asked to meet with the principal. Eventually, students could be ordered to serve detention after school, and in extreme cases, could be suspended, he said. But Ur suspects that won't happen.

"In a year we'll all say, 'Jeez, what was all the fuss about?' " he said.

Most of the schools' younger students are saying that now.

Rachel Allegria, an eighth-grader who strolled by Avalon shops recently after school, said she likes the dress code because students no longer have to worry about styles.

"It's pretty cool, I guess," she said.

Some parents are participating despite their opposition. George Marshall Jr., 43, opposes the dress code but he made a special trip to the mainland to buy his 8-year-old son the proper outfits. "It cost me 160 bucks," he said. "I can't understand it."

But Marshall said he moved to the island five years ago to raise George Marshall III in a safer environment, and he will put up with the policy.

"Over town, kids are killing each other over tennis shoes and jackets," he said. "But this is L.A.'s best-kept secret."

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