The Ottumwa Courier


September 15, 2012

New behavior, dress codes this year at OHS

Standards of Excellence teach respect, success

OTTUMWA — To be successful, young people need more than English, math and science skills. This year, the stricter behavior standards at Ottumwa High School may make it harder for some students to express their individuality. It may also make them more successful in the real world.

When school started this year, OHS Principal Mark Hanson told parents and pupils that students will be respectful in school — to staff and to each other. The “10 Standards of Excellence,” he said, are meant to make school a more welcoming place but in a way that teaches kids everyday skills they may need.

“We want students to see this is how to put yourself in a position to succeed through high school and beyond,” said Hanson.

The dress code listed in the “10 Standards of Excellence” is not long: It tells students to dress appropriately.

What that means, said Hanson at the beginning of school, is they’ll be dressed without vulgarities or inappropriate comments or pictures on their clothing, without showing off bras, underpants or body parts that wouldn’t be acceptable in the work world. No hats or bandanas and no pants hanging down around a student’s knees.

But the more specific list prohibits “Clothing with alcohol, tobacco ... inappropriate words or phrases ...

“A student dress code is an important characteristic toward establishing an academic environment. As a parent, you need to know about the change. Students will be expected to abide by these expectations. Students who wear inappropriate clothes to school will be asked to change clothes or call parents to bring appropriate clothing to school.”

After school Friday, the Courier asked a random group of students about the code of conduct. It’s not that hard to abide by, most said. But there are fellow students who seem like they don’t want to follow the rules.

When it comes to dress code especially, said one, he wants his peers on board.

“I’ve already heard rumors that if we can’t do this, it’s going to get worse. I don’t want to go to school in khakis and a polo shirt,” said James Gates, an OHS junior.

“It’s not hard to go by the dress code,” added classmate Mitchell McDowell.

His shirt had nostalgic cartoon characters, James had a ping pong shirt and another friend had the symbol of superhero Captain America. All were dressed appropriately for the dress code.  

“When I go up to the high school, I’ve seen a change,” said Ottumwa Superintendent Davis Eidahl.

Not everyone gets it, but students are dressing less offensively and started to act a bit more respectful, too, he said.

Some of those rules, like being respectful to each other, are OK, said Matthew Luke, father of an OHS student. But as a military veteran, he said, he does not want to see anybody’s First Amendment right violated.

He said his son was heading into class recently when a teacher said, “Stop right there.”

Luke’s son was sent to the associate principal, who told him the shirt he was wearing was inappropriate.

Technically, it didn’t say anything lewd. The teachers must have dirty minds if they made a connection between a shirt that said, “My pen is Enormous!” and thought that would be read as “My penis Enormous!” said Luke.

There’s even a representation of a pen on the shirt. The associate principal wasn’t buying that argument, and when the boy refused to turn his shirt inside out, he was reprimanded, said Luke.

“There’s a space between the two words, and a picture of a large novelty pen,” said Matthew Luke. “It’s nothing but a comical shirt.”

Asked if it would be funny because it really meant “My penis,” the dad said the teachers shouldn’t be thinking that way — at least not at school.

“They would have to be thinking sexually to think that. And they shouldn’t be thinking sexually. In fact, shouldn’t that be a red flag, if a teacher is sitting there in class thinking that way?”

Besides, it doesn’t say “penis,” it said “pen is.”

“Parents screen what their kids wear. I screen everything my kids wear, the school doesn’t have that right. This is about conformity,” Luke insisted.

Eidahl said the issue is more about instruction, and teaching kids there’s a time and a place for certain appearance and behaviors.

“Listen, if you want to wear that to the state fair, that’s great. But would you wear that to a job interview?” Eidahl said.

So sometimes, it’s fine. Sometimes, it’s not, he said. Students are learning, he added, that dressing in a manner that is school appropriate is important. There’s a time and a place for “funny” clothes.

“Look at the situation. We want students to know how to dress for a Saturday or a school day ... or for a job interview,” he said. “Any school can have a dress code; but with the standards we’re showing ‘why’ dress is important.”  

Teachers are expected to model respectful behavior and other of the standards, and are expected to dress appropriately, too. Eidahl called it a mixture of modeling proper behavior and using teachable moments to instruct kids in what the school wants from them. And they’re trying to teach students that they will be more successful if they follow these expectations.

“They identify how an individual can be successful in school and in life,” Eidahl said. “Plus, when you have a high school filled with respectful, compassionate individuals, we are going to create a culture that provides a sense of  belonging for every individual.”

“I understand they have their rules, but where is the dividing line?” asked Luke.

And there’s another lesson not mentioned in the dress code, Luke insists. He’s proud that his son refused to turn the shirt inside out, despite feeling intimidated by staff.

“Call my dad,” the boy told administrators.

And when his father backed the boy’s decision, despite disagreement from the school, he felt his son also saw that when he’s right, “Mom and Dad got his back.”

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