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Dress Code Is New Hot Button for the Houston Schools

School dress codes have been around for decades, but they gained more prominence in schools and are stricter in recent years in response to the permeation of gangs and violence within the schools at all levels. In addition to maintaining modesty within the schools, dress codes now ban gang paraphernalia, colors and symbols; shirts with writing; head Hijab coverings; and other such accessories that have been linked to gangs or school violence.

Though all of the schools in Houston have dress codes, each of the Houston schools develops their own policy. One thing all Houston school dress codes have in common is an allowance for religious accommodation. When Houston schools students’ religious traditions and dictates conflict with school dress codes, exemptions may be made. With the diversity being felt by the schools in Houston in recent years, Houston schools principals are striking a delicate balance between religious freedoms and safety issues on an increasing basis.

One example is the Houston ISD campus, which has students from 72 countries. Principal Steve Amstutz receives many dress code exemption requests each year. His policy is to meet privately with a student requesting a waiver to discuss the matter. If the request is genuine and religious-based, the exemption is granted.

In the precedent-setting 1969 Supreme Court decision of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, the court ruled, “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Since this ruling, disputes over codes that become lawsuits generally see the courts ruling in favor of the students, especially when they concern religious dress.

Though most disputes remain within the schools, requests for exemptions and complaints are on the increase. Charles C. Haynes, senior scholar with the First Amendment Center, studies the issue of religious exceptions to dress codes and school uniforms. He notes the increase is due to stricter dress code policies to ensure a safer environment, as well as the growth and organization of some minority groups that are becoming more vocal.

Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-Day Adventists were the first to dispute the dress code policies of the Houston schools. Currently, the Muslims are at the forefront, though other groups, such as Hindus and Sikhs, are beginning to organization, as well.

Though some Islamic dress and traditions are not mandatory, such as males wearing beards, many Islamic scholars recommend them. Muslimas (Islamic females) experience problems when uniforms are required to be worn or the school does not allow any headwear. For many, they wear the traditional Islamic robes (jilbab or abaya) and Hijab (head scarf). Many Islamic students see it as their duty to adhere to their religious traditions, especially around the holiday of Ramadan.

Iliana Gonzalez, a civil rights specialist for the Houston’s Council on American-Islamic Rights, fields about 35 complaints annually from Houston schools students regarding dress code. She said a phone call to the Houston schools principal usually resolves the issue. Many Houston schools administrators are not aware of the law regarding such matters, though most parents do not wish any action beyond the phone call.