Teachers and administrators must not touch students or their clothing while looking into dress-code violations, Beaufort County Schools superintendent Jeff Moss told board members Tuesday night, a clarification he planned to reinforce during a Wednesday meeting with district principals.
Even so, concerns by several board members prompted chair Patricia Felton-Montgomery to ask its student services committee to take a closer look into enforcement of the regulations.
“If you can’t tell by looking that it’s a dress-code violation, why do this?” asked board member David Striebinger. “It’s (about) the visual, isn’t it?”
Enforcement methods came to the forefront last week in the wake of a uniform sweep at H.E. McCracken Middle School that prompted three parents to file complaints with Bluffton police alleging inappropriate conduct.
Though separate investigations by the district and police found no wrongdoing, an allegation that a teacher had thrice put her hand into an eighth-grade female’s front pants pocket sparked backlash.
That tactic, board members concurred, was in poor judgment.
“When you insert your hand into a student’s pocket very close to their private areas, that is an invasion,” board member JoAnn Orischak said.
Moss told the board that he had “extensive discussions” last week with McCracken principal Jerry Henderson.
“What should have occurred, what should not have occurred,” Moss said. “Both he and his staff know that they should not be touching clothing on students.”
That principle, he added, would be emphasized with all of the district’s principals as part of their twice-a-month meeting at district offices.
The district’s uniform code does allows school administrators leeway in determining how to conduct inspections, though officials said last week neither students nor parents should be made to feel uncomfortable. At issue is how inspectors can determine whether pants are made of denim, which is prohibited, or denim-looking blends, that are allowed.
Moss noted that in another district where he has worked, administrators tried to work around such dilemmas by taking a digital photo of the questionable item and asking the student to bring it back the next day.
“Then you can look at it, look at the label, touch it,” Moss said. “X-ray it if you want.”
Nonetheless, some members wondered if even that goes too far — even whether dress-code sweeps were necessary.
“It just needs to be a visual process,” board member Christina Gwozdz said. “Why do we need a principal taking a picture and having a student bring (the clothing) back? I’d rather have them focus on academic performance.”
Said board member Joseph Dunkle: “If you’re doing sweeps, that’s just as disruptive to the classroom environment — not only to the student that’s being swept up but to other kids in the class that are disturbed.”
The student services committee, upon its review, can recommend changes in enforcement to the superintendent.
In other matters, the board asked for a new survey of teachers and district employees on upcoming school calendars that would include an option for a longer Christmas break.
Two options for both 2017-18 and 2018-19 had been offered to employees for comment, though the only difference was moving two work days from the end of the school year to the beginning. Those models included a 12-day break between the end of fall semester and a new semester immediately after New Year’s.
A new option suggested by two teachers, Moss said, would push the second semester’s start back to the Monday after New Year’s Day. That would created a 17-day break between semesters, and extend the school year past Memorial Day.
Public comments included a request from Bluffton parent Chris Donelson, father of a Red Cedar Elementary second-grader who has started a petition drive to return start times to what they were last year.
Elementary schools now start at 7:45 a.m., an hour earlier than before, with middle and high schools beginning an hour later.
“I feel they are so crushed for time this year, and it’s put a strain on all involved,” said Donelson, whose Change.org drive attracted more than 140 signatures in its first three days.