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Dress code dust-up inspires introspection

Students were required to wear color-coded uniforms in conjunction with the opening of the new Lawrence High School in 2007.

Joanne Rathe / Globe Staff / File 2007

Students were required to wear color-coded uniforms in conjunction with the opening of the new Lawrence High School in 2007.

As the media blitz staged by a charismatic 17-year-old Plaistow, N.H., student armed with a Twitter account and a Facebook campaign thrusts Timberlane Regional High School into the spotlight for banning sleeveless tops, local Bay State school districts are reflecting on their own policies.

In Haverhill, just 3 miles from Timberlane High, School Committee member Paul Magliocchetti is looking favorably on the city’s John C. Tilton Innovation School, a public elementary school that requires uniforms, and is pushing to spread the practice across the district.

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“If you’re a parent and you have two or three kids in the schools, if there were a code that said students have to wear khakis and a polo or button-up shirt, that would take a lot of pressure off the kids and make life easier on the parents,” said Magliocchetti, who for years has championed the idea that sharp clothes may promote sharp grades.

He plans to bring up the issue after the holidays. The School Committee, he said, “needs to take a look at our current policy and decide whether we want to keep things as they are or go in a different direction.”

Student dress codes vary widely from district to district. The overwhelming majority of policies, like Haverhill’s, require that hair and clothing is “neat and clean and conforms to acceptable health and safety standards.” A few, like the one in Lawrence, require all students to wear uniforms, a polo or oxford shirt with pants or slacks. No jeans allowed.

Lawrence was the first public school district in Massachusetts to require uniforms for all pupils. The policy was implemented in 1996 to improve the learning environment.

At the time, students were allowed to mix and match a variety of approved garments. In 2007, when the city opened its $110 million high school, officials began requiring Lawrence High School students to don color-coded uniforms that reflect their prime area of study. Officials embraced the revised policy in an effort to foster team spirit and pride.

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Educators in Lynn, the largest school district in the Globe North region, have adopted a different approach, one that marries common sense and fashion sense. The school system’s 13,731 students are banned from wearing clothing or hairstyles that are “distractive or disruptive in appearance,” but are given the leeway to express their individuality.

“If they want to wear shorts in January like the mailman, let them,” said Donna M. Coppola, who has served on the Lynn School Committee for 13 years. “Some of the principals are not happy with the policy, but we [the eight-member School Committee] just felt like when you go places now, including wakes, people come in with shorts on. Why should we be hard on our students just because they’re urban kids?”

Department of Elementary and Secondary Education spokesman Jonathan Considine said the state does not keep track of districts’ dress code policies because such matters are local decisions.

“The Supreme Court always asks the question: ‘What would the common man interpret as reasonable?’” noted Herbert W. Levine, executive director of the New England Association of School Superintendents, who has served as superintendent in Salem and interim superintendent in Peabody. “I think that what people generally interpret as reasonably dressed common mores is what the standard is in most districts.”

Brenda J. Buote may be reached at brenda.buote@globe.com

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