Mountain View Voice

News - May 17, 2013

High school cover-up: debate over students dress code

Parents not amused as MVLA district trustee pokes fun at calls for stricter guidelines

by Nick Veronin

Tempers were tested at a recent meeting of the local high school district's board of trustees, as one of the governing body's elder statesmen gave a passionate, playful and at times sardonic speech, suggesting calls for stricter enforcement of dress code policy was contributing to "rape culture."

The speech drew a sharp rebuff from the three mothers at whom it was directed.

On May 13, Tabitha Hanson, Christy Reed and Sarah Robinson — who have asked Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District officials to step up enforcement of behavioral guidelines — told Trustee Phil Faillace that they felt slighted and ridiculed by his address.

"I find it extremely disrespectful when you pick apart parent concern — of the dress code, for example — and people laugh and chuckle on the board," Hanson said in a public comment to the trustees, directing her gaze at Faillace.

The women have complained that dress code has only been sporadically enforced and have focused most of their attention on female student violations — such as backless shirts, low-cut blouses, short shorts and skirts, and midriff tops.

Faillace drew snickers from the audience, the board and district administrators, when he held up a copy of the April 30 edition of the Los Altos High School Talon student newspaper. Drawing attention to a girl pictured on the cover, Faillace observed that the teen was wearing shorts, "which I'm sure are in violation of the current dress code."

"Look at the disruption this young lady is causing," he said, facetiously. "What's it say she's doing? Oh! 'Students and tutors listen as sophomore — and I'm not going to repeat her name — explains a math problem during a tutorial session,'" Faillace continued, reading from the photograph's caption. "Wow! What a disruptive activity — explaining a math problem. She ought to be arrested."

Ongoing battle

Faillace's comments came during an agenda item discussing what the district administration had been doing to address the concerns first raised by Hanson, Reed and Robinson at a board meeting at the beginning of the year.

At the Jan. 14 board meeting, the three women gave a presentation on what they saw as lapses in enforcement of the district's code of conduct. The charged that students were drinking and doing drugs at dances and during the school day, dancing inappropriately at school dances, swearing in class without reprimand, violating the district dress code with impunity. To top it all off, the MVHS Oracle student newspaper was running articles that promoted student drug use, they said.

"We feel it's worth a second look at how effectively the behavioral standards are being enforced" at district schools, Reed wrote in an email to the Voice back in January. "No doubt there is some enforcement, but the consistency and level of that enforcement we feel is worth the district board examining."

In February, the issue exploded after the Oracle published a series of articles under the banner "Sex and Relationships." Parents were incensed — calling on district administrators to censor the Oracle and censure the paper's adviser, MVHS teacher Amy Beare.

Some progress

Five months on from the initial complaint, and after a massive board meeting on the "Sex and Relationships" articles at MVHS' Spartan Theatre, the district board was revisiting the enforcement issue to see what progress has been made.

District administrators have taken some steps suggested by Hanson, Reed and Robinson. Perhaps most notably, the district will once again give the California Healthy Kids Survey — which the mothers recommended as a measure to combat drug and alcohol abuse among students.

Additionally, the during the May 13 meeting, trustees had an open discussion with the three women and the principals of MVHS and LAHS — Keith Moody and Wynne Satterwhite — on how to increase reporting and investigation of teens suspected of being under the influence.

They also discussed what might be done about tightening enforcement of "grinding" — dirty dancing — at school functions. On that score, the Moody and Satterwhite said there wasn't much more that could be done.

Faillace, who noted that when he was in high school sex was ever present in his thoughts, seemed to agree that not much could be done about inappropriate dancing, though he did say he was concerned about students feeling left out, sexually harassed or ostracized by their peers, as a result of feeling uncomfortable with dancing too closely or provocatively.

In a statement sent via email, Hanson said she was pleased to see the board and district administration taking action to step up enforcement of behavioral guidelines.

"I am extremely proud of the parent efforts that I have been a part of this past school year to improve the learning environment at MVHS by ensuring that as a school community, we are all doing our part to support and sustain the school board's behavioral guidelines," she wrote. "I believe that in the bigger picture, some board members and Dr. Groves have made some positive efforts to address many of our concerns and to begin a dialog of how to best enforce their own guidelines in order to make campus a place where all students feel safe and respected."

Prudish or prudent?

However, when it came to the issue of the dress code, Faillace clearly disagreed with Hanson, Reed and Robinson's views.

At some length, Faillace went on to recount recent nationally publicized incidents of women in college and high school girls who were raped and then subsequently blamed for their sexual assault. "They were asking for it!" he exclaimed, paraphrasing those who blamed the victims for dressing too provocatively or being "all over" the men and boys accused of raping them.

The point of all of this, Faillace concluded, was that by punishing young women for wearing shorts or skirts deemed too short, school administrators are effectively saying that "boys will be boys" — that male students are incapable of controlling their sexual desires, and therefore it is the responsibility of the young women to cover up.

"I think if you're fostering personal responsibility, you've got to tell young men that they are responsible for how they react to somebody's dress," he said emphatically. "Just as they are responsible for how they react to words. If they react with physical violence to words, they're responsible. This is not to say that what you wear, what you say, is something you can be irresponsible about. It's just saying that you need to have personal responsibility for your own actions. I like our board policies. I like our administrative regulations. I think we need to have guidelines that are consistent with them."

Both Hanson and Robinson spoke up and called the tone of Faillace's speech as offensive, and Reed said Faillace's speech and the giggles it produced made it seem like the board was brushing their very valid concerns aside.

"I publicly want to say I don't appreciate my concerns being laughed at," Hanson said.

"I think it's very important to make a distinction between being respectful of a person's right to express an opinion and being respectful of the opinion," Faillace said in response to Hanson's comment. "I certainly respect your right to express your opinions. However, that does not mean when you articulate an opinion that I find a threat to Civil Rights, that I have an obligation to respect that opinion."

Addressing Faillace's speech in her emailed statement, Hanson said she would not be deterred.

"I certainly won't be discouraged by a singular board member's need to get on a soapbox, or his highly unprofessional use of ridicule as a tool to express disagreement," she wrote. "I am really looking forward the next school year — to the appointment of the new MVHS principal, the reinstatement of the California Healthy Kids Survey, an improved journalism program, and a renewed awareness and commitment on campus to providing the best learning environment we possibly can for MVHS students."

After the meeting, Faillace told the Voice said he wouldn't speculate about the trio's motives for tightening behavioral guidelines.

Speaking more generally, he said, "I think there is a tendency for parents to want very much to have a world that conforms to their very particular worldview. And this worldview may not always be respectful of individual tastes, and behaviors and preferences, even though these tastes, behavior and preferences may within the bounds of the law and (are) constitutionally protected."

He said that he felt the need to speak so forcefully at the board meeting because he doesn't like the idea of legislative bodies making rules that end up stifling individual freedom of expression.

"Whenever I hear that a legislative body ... is being asked to make a rule that seems to fly in the face of a fundamental constitutionally protected right, I get very very nervous, because legislative bodies have a history of overreaching in those circumstances," he said. "It's not a pretty history."

Comments

Posted by Dani, a resident of North Whisman
on May 17, 2013 at 2:56 am

When my son was at Los Altos High in 2006, the dress code was very simple:

1. No underwear may be visible.
2. Students must wear underwear.


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