Teachers at Proviso Township High Schools District 209 are pushing back against the school board's move to get rid of the district's uniform policy, arguing that the decision will contribute to an atmosphere of insubordination and disorder at the schools — a point, they said, that was proven by a massive water balloon fight at Proviso West High School earlier this month.
Starting next school year, students will be allowed to wear regular clothing as long as it doesn't "disrupt the educational process, interfere with the maintenance of a positive teaching/learning climate, or compromise reasonable standards of health, safety, and decency."
The new dress code policy — which was approved unanimously by the board in April but still needs to be finalized and added to the 2018-19 student handbook— is largely the work of members of the Superintendent's Student Advisory Board and a group of students who are part of an English class at Proviso East.
The students argued that since its implementation in 2014, the uniform policy has been unfairly and unevenly enforced, and has helped to perpetuate "racism, classism and sexism" in the district.
Most board members applauded what member Rodney Alexander, a proponent of uniforms, called the students' "adult-like, board-like work."
"You have to yield to their expressions and their education process and their ability to communicate and put this argument together," Alexander said. "They've pretty much won the argument."
But at a regular meeting on May 8, members of the Proviso Teachers Union didn't feel the debate was settled. Although most of the teachers who spoke lauded the students' effort to overturn the uniform policy, they countered with arguments of their own about the policy's effectiveness.
"The uniforms do not promote racism, sexism and classism," said Scott Hendrickson, a union member and social studies teacher at Proviso West. "They promote the very opposite. … I've worn uniforms with people from all races, ages, socioeconomic backgrounds and sexes. Uniforms minimize differences and promote teamwork."
Hendrickson said the union was not consulted about the policy change and the teachers' view about the proposed change was not adequately considered.
"The union is especially concerned that there will be no enforcement of the new dress code and we'll return to what we had in the past — students wearing belly shirts, spaghetti straps, short shorts," he said.
The new dress code, which would debut next school year, like the current policy, prohibits most of the items Hendrickson stated, but both teachers and students who spoke during public meetings over the last two months complained about enforcement.
Maggie Riley, the teachers union president, said the union "believes that altering the uniform policy is still a mistake," and "one teacher and a handful of students do not speak for the majority of our members."
Riley added that "this entire year, the dress code has not been enforced," and argued that the lack of uniform policy enforcement, in addition to the overall lax disciplinary culture throughout the district, may have been a contributing factor in a water balloon fight that took place at West on May 2.
"It was so bad that at one point, administration from East and [Proviso Math and Science Academy] was sent over to help," she said, adding that a maintenance person was hit with "several water balloons" and a "substitute teacher was so scared" that the person hid underneath a staircase.
Carissa Gillespie, an English teacher in the district who also has a child attending a D209 school, said during the May 8 meeting that the district should have solicited input from parents and community members through multiple outlets, including email, newsletter and meetings, before deciding on the policy change.
"Although I'm proud of the work a small number of our students did to bring about the new dress code," she said, "I'm not proud that most of our students learn that if you complain, or refuse to comply with the rules, District 209 will change the rules for you."