Parent asks: 'Are you trying to educate or ... humiliate?'
Causey Middle School eighth-grader Elizabeth Dover said she had been wearing her $35 corduroys to school since August. But when forced to choose between being suspended for wearing the khaki-colored pants or having the metal rivets unceremoniously yanked off with a pair of wire cutters, the 13-year-old Dover let her anger make the choice.
She marched down to a janitor's closet, undid the top two buttons of her pants and waited while the female custodian tore each rivet off.
''I was very mad," the blonde, blue-eyed teen said this week. Dover said that on Dec. 17, during final exams week, she was called out of her first-period English class with three other students for being out of compliance with uniform rules.
Her pants were too jean-like, she was told, and ''jean style" trousers are specifically forbidden under the new school's dress code. The problem, she was told, was the rivets - metal fasteners often used on jeans pockets.
Dover said she was given a choice by an assistant principal: Wear the pants for the rest of the day and receive a suspension or get the rivets removed.
The custodian apologized, Dover said, after leaving several small holes and one half-inch rip in the hips of her trousers.
''As silly as this all sounds, these adults wouldn't want this done to them," said Randall Dover, Elizabeth's father. ''Are you trying to educate or are you trying to humiliate?"
Causey Middle School Principal Mary Olive Wood refused to comment on the matter. She did not confirm or deny Elizabeth Dover's version of events.
Nancy Thompson, who was an assistant principal at Causey until she was named to a central office position in November, said she is familiar with the school's practice of removing rivets.
Thompson said the no- rivets rule was a highly publicized one that was addressed in school bulletins. Still, Thompson said, she wasn't certain whether parents had been informed that the school might remove them when they encounter non-compliance.
''No one would have taken the rivets off the pants if the child hadn't given permission," Thompson said. Causey opened for the first time this fall, a consolidation of grade-levels from several area schools, including the old Baker Junior High, which was housed in Baker High School.
Lee Taylor, the administrator who oversees middle schools for the 66,000-student Mobile system, said it has been important for the new school to develop its own identity. Vigorously enforcing the dress code is a part of that.
''I have a notion that rivets are a dead giveaway for the jean style," Taylor said. ''I have never seen a uniform style pant with rivets."
Still, the former principal said, she would think twice before removing something from a child's clothing without contacting parents: ''Unless I had some kind of permission, I wouldn't do it because of the kind of tenuous, mushy position it places the administration in."
Connie Hudson, president of the Mobile County Council of PTAs and a Mobile City Council member, said such a practice should not be the prerogative of school administrators.
''A person's body and the clothes they wear are part of their personal property," Hudson said. ''I don't think that's within the school's authority to be handling children that way."
Parents should be notified if a child is out of compliance, Hudson said. ''I think the administration in the system should rethink their position." John Powell, principal of Adams Middle School in Saraland, admitted that it can be a dicey game to tell the difference between khaki pants and khaki-colored jeans.
''Particularly with girls," Powell said. But to argue over the difference, he said, ''That's just not a battle I want to fight." If they're khaki, don't have huge flares at the bottom, don't have pockets all over the sides or other abnormal things, he said, that'll do.
Though the systemwide student Code of Conduct calls for suspension after two uniform rule violations, Assistant Superintendent Rhonda Waltman said principals generally establish their own system of warnings before taking such drastic action.
Don Stringfellow, principal at Burns Middle School in west Mobile, said he doesn't recall ever enforcing the dress code to the point of removing rivets from clothing but that one of the strengths of the uniform policy is the bit of leeway given each school.
''It's a big problem and not a big problem," Stringfellow said of enforcing uniform codes. ''You want to maintain the integrity of your uniform policy, but you don't want to be the clothes police."
Dan Sterbenz, product manager for Lee boyswear, a leading manufacturer of jeans, admitted that discriminating between jeans and pants can get extra-dicey these days.
He said the company tends to define jeans, not by the fabric used but by the stitching and in-seam-style, pocket design and other construction.
When pressed to pick a side, though, Sterbenz admitted there's something about rivets: ''I would say that rivets are a type of construction associated with jeans," he said. ''Does that solve it?"
SCHOOL UNIFORMS: Discipline or Abuse?