Published January 13, 2015
Violating Gonzales High School's dress code is not a crime, but some of the offenders are about to start looking a lot like convicts.
Soon after classes begin Aug. 25, violators of the district's beefed-up dress code must don navy blue coveralls unless they get another set of clothes from home — or serve in-school suspension. The outfits aren't just styled like prison jumpsuits — they're actually made by Texas inmates.
"We're a conservative community, and we're just trying to make our students more reflective of that," said Larry Wehde, Gonzales Independent School District deputy superintendent.
The new policy in Gonzales, about 70 miles east of San Antonio, has drawn plenty of criticism — along with some speculation that all the district will accomplish is to set off a new fashion trend.
Kids wearing spaghetti-strap tank tops, extra baggy pants, cargo pants or T-shirts may find themselves finishing the school day in the drab one-piece outfits. Boys with earrings or facial hair, girls in miniskirts and anyone in clothes that show underwear face the same fate.
Some parents and students are crying foul.
"They're not little prisoners," said Mary Helen Douglas, who has a 17-year-old son starting his senior year.
The 2,650-student district has ordered 82 coveralls, which are most often sold to county jails, state mental institutions and juvenile prisons. School districts have bought lunch trays and similar items from inmate labor, but no other school district has ordered the jumpsuits in the last year, said Michelle Lyons, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
The jumpsuits aren't the only option for dress-code violators from fifth through 12th grade. School board President Glenn Menking said parents can still bring a change of clothes, or they may request that the student go to in-school suspension instead.
"We're not going to force anybody to wear it," Menking said. "It is an additional option to allow us to keep kids in the educational classroom."
Menking said the idea was to put students' attention on education, not clothes.
But students who oppose the jumpsuit idea say the dress code will be Topic No. 1.
The senior class president, Jordan Meredith, said some students plan to turn the policy on its head — instead of considering the jumpsuits a punishment, they'll make them cool.
Meredith said he's already heard from some who plan to deliberately violate the dress code to get a jumpsuit to wear. Meredith is considering buying a jumpsuit of his own to wear for the entire school year.
"I don't think that jumpsuits are going to work, because my friends actually, instead of it being a punishment, they'll see it as an opportunity to be like, rebels," said Meredith, who also isn't sure whether his hair, dyed bright fire-engine red, will pass muster. "I don't think there's going to be enough jumpsuits for everyone in the school."
Menking said the new policy was approved in July on a 5-0 vote along with an even stricter dress code that banned T-shirts in favor of collared shirts.
He said most objecting parents have been mollified by the notion that the jumpsuits are just one option.
Wehde, the deputy superintendent, said the point of the jumpsuits is not to embarrass the students, but to cover them up. Although the jumpsuits are of a style worn by prisoners, Wehde noted that people in a variety of jobs wear similar outfits.
"By calling ... work coveralls a prison outfit I think is rather insulting to all those people that work out in the economy every day in some kind of business that requires them, because of the nature of their work, to wear a coverall," Wehde said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas is concerned about infringing on students' rights to free expression.
"Public school dress codes should be limited to what's necessary to guard against actual disruption to the educational process and threats to safety," said Fleming Terrell, an ACLU of Texas staff attorney. "The jumpsuits may be just as distracting as the clothing they're replacing."
Yet the idea may be catching on. Cuero Independent School District, 30 miles down the road, plans to make coveralls mandatory for the remainder of the day when a student hits multiple offenses.
"We want the kids in class," said Superintendent Henry Lind. "That's the only way they're going to learn. If you sit them in (a suspension) room or sit them in a corner just because they're not complying, who's winning? Really nobody."