Parent Dress & Unintended Consequences

Consistently in polling, educators refer to the heavy workload as being a major factor to why they leave the education profession.  Today educators must also exercise a higher duty of care than most other professionals. Teachers face exposure to liability much greater than does the average citizen.  Teacher burnout is actually an international epidemic.

Nearly every day, teachers must deal with diverse laws related to issues such as child abuse, student discipline, negligence, defamation, student records and copyright infringement.  And still they must teach. So, every time we see legislation that adds to the teacher workload, we look very cautiously at it.  

If we created a parent dress code, it will only add more work to our already overburdened educators, as well as increase their liability. That does not mean adults should not dress appropriately on school grounds.  However, educators should not be the enforcement part of any proposed law.  Do we expect teachers to issue speeding tickets in school zones?  Should they enforce seatbelt laws or arrest those who violate cell phone usage in a school zone?  Of course not.  So why is this issue more important or any different?      

As Professional Educators of Tennessee has pointed out, most of what Representative Parkinson seeks to address is already in state law.  It happens to be in a different code than laws that strictly are on education.  Adults should dress properly.  And of course, adults should conduct themselves properly in public.  Previous legislators understood that indecency laws and behavior problems, which impacts all of society, are criminal offenses.  It has simply been unenforced in most cases.    

Now because of a few isolated instances that were never reported to police who have proper jurisdiction, we are rushing to pass legislation and add to the burden of our public schools.  Are educators now to act as law enforcement agents on matters of dress by adults?   We should discuss the issue and perhaps study the issue further.  But changes should be made in Title 39 of the Tennessee Code Annotated (T.C.A.): general offenses, offenses against the person, offenses against property, offenses against the family, offenses against the administration of government, and offenses against the public health, safety and welfare not Title 49 Education. 

The problem that legislation like this seeks to solve with student dress code policies alone have resulted in many court cases over the years.  This type of legislation will compound the problem for teachers, schools, and districts.  In general, public schools are allowed to have student dress codes and uniform policies which cannot be discriminatory or censor expression.  And most of the policies are targeted at females.  In St. Louis area, the Mehlville School District dealt with multiple complaints in August 2018.  This will prove extremely problematic when enforcing policies with adults.  So, if legislation is to be passed on this matter, include immunity for teachers, schools and districts.  And prepare for the litigation that is sure to follow. 

The law of unintended consequences, often cited but rarely defined, is that actions always have effects that are unanticipated or unintended.  It is common sense that adults should dress appropriately in public.  However, to make this cultural matter one that places public education as the gatekeepers of public indecency for adults makes little sense.  We hope this matter can be resolved without increasing, unnecessarily, the workload of our educators.   The intended and unintended consequences of any legislation of this matter might not be what you want. 

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JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited. For more information on this subject or any education issue please contact Professional Educators of Tennessee.

Dress Codes and Bad Behavior

I have been fascinated by a piece of legislation being suggested by Tennessee Representative Antonio Parkinson on a parental dress code. We should welcome the discussion. The legislation is probably not necessary. It offers nothing that law enforcement could not already do.
 
Apparently, in Memphis-Shelby County parents are going on school grounds dressed in inappropriate attire, or as Rep. Parkinson describes one case: “a parent coming in with lingerie on and body parts still visible to everyone.” We can all agree that is inappropriate. Here is the problem: we already have laws on the books designed to address public indecency for adults. In Tennessee, individuals commit “indecent exposure” when he or she, in a public place or on the private premises of another, intentionally exposes his or her genitals or buttocks or engages in sexual acts and reasonably expects the acts to be viewed by others. The acts offend an ordinary viewer, and are for the arousal and gratification of the individual.   (Tennessee Code Annotated §39-13-511).

The punishment for public indecency or indecent exposure includes fines and/or jail time. For the first or second offense, public indecency is a Class B misdemeanor punishable by a fine of $500. If you are convicted of three or more indecent exposure charges, you will have to register as a sex offender. If you are a school employee or an adult on school grounds and witness another adult engaged in indecent exposure please notify school administration, the appropriate law enforcement agency, including the school resource officer, immediately. Passing legislation is probably not necessary if we simply enforce the indecent exposure laws already on the books.
 
Engaged parents are critical partners in student success. But we must expect adults to follow local, state and federal laws. This would also include appropriate behavior. Tennessee law already prohibits a variety of behaviors that annoy or disrupt other people in public. These categories of offenses found in Title 39 of the Tennessee Code Annotated (T.C.A.): general offenses, offenses against the person, offenses against property, offenses against the family, offenses against the administration of government, and offenses against the public health, safety and welfare were revised and modernized in 1989. Perhaps they should be updated?
 
Violations of public peace and safety in Tennessee include: 1) Public intoxication: Appearing under the influence of alcohol or drugs, causing unreasonable annoyance or endangerment; 2) Disorderly conduct: Threatening behavior, creating hazardous conditions, being unreasonably noisy or fighting; 3) Civil rights intimidation: Threatening or injuring someone to prevent him or her from exercising rights or privileges; and, 4) Obstructing a passageway: Obstructing a sidewalk, highway, hallway or elevator. If parents are engaged in any of these behaviors, then it is a matter for law enforcement. Our schools have a difficult enough time managing the behavior issues of students. Managing the criminal behavior of adults is the primary role and responsibility of law enforcement, not educators.
 
The 111th General Assembly must address real issues facing all of our public schools. We should focus on three major priorities: 1) Strengthening the foundations of a quality system; 2) Getting our students ready to enter the workforce; and 3) Embracing innovation. I applaud Representative Parkinson for speaking up on an issue that is impacting the schools in his district. I hope he will encourage school officials in his district to work with law enforcement and address criminal behavior. We must have high moral standards in our schools. So, let’s simply enforce the law that already exists. On that we can all agree.

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JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited.