West Va. teachers union insists on constitutional right to wear spandex, short skirts

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The school board in the most populous county in West Virginia is once again attempting to institute a dress code for public school teachers.

The last time the issue came up — in 2001 — Kanawha County school board members ultimately voted down a policy that would have banned strapless dresses, low-cut blouses, blue jeans and spandex, reports the Spirit of Jefferson and Farmer’s Advocate, a West Va. newspaper.

The details of the proposed Kanawha County Schools dress code remain vague at this point. However, there seems to be a general focus on things like conspicuous tattoos, facial piercings and overly revealing clothes. Spandex may or may not loom large in this round of dress-code controversy.

Basically, the school board’s goal is to introduce standards for determining if teachers aren’t dressed appropriately.

Under the current policy, there is no dress code. Each teacher’s wardrobe must be considered on a case-by-case basis.

“Even under the existing rules, if you say a teacher is supposed to dress professionally, then it may be incumbent upon us to define what we think ‘professional’ and ‘appropriate’ is,” suggested Jim Withrow, an attorney for the school district.

Becky Jordon, a Kanawha County school board member, wants teachers to come to work looking like professional employees.

“I think teachers should be able to dress comfortably,” Jordon said, according to the Spirit of Jefferson. “All I’m asking for is that if you’re telling a student they can’t wear tank tops, then an employee shouldn’t be able to.”

“I was at a school recently and a teacher had the back out of her shirt and a big tattoo was showing,” the school board member added. “I’ve seen some teachers whose skirts are so short that it does draw attention.”

Christine Campbell, president of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, argues that a dress code is unnecessary.

“What are we trying to do? Does this really impair the children’s ability to learn, and where does it stop? Are we going to line teachers up and measure the length of their skirts?” said Campbell. “Let teachers do their jobs and focus on education instead of imposing someone’s personal preference on their style.”

The teachers union also calls a dress code an unconstitutional encroachment on the human rights of its members.

The union’s trump card is a 1988 Kanawha County Circuit Court decision holding that school boards do not have the authority to force restrictive dress codes on teachers because such codes infringe on freedom of expression.

Campbell wants to maintain the current case-by-case standard. She also warned that tattoos and piercings are a very complex issue.

“We’re looking to attract new, young teachers and, for a lot of young people, that’s the way they express themselves,” Campbell claimed. “None of these things are impairing a child’s ability to learn or a teacher’s ability to teach.”

For some reason, West Virginia seems to be ground zero for fights over what teachers should wear.

Over the summer, teachers in rural Lewis County pitched a fit because the local board of education voted unanimously to prohibit them from wearing blue jeans, faded jeans and shorts to work. (RELATED: Public school teachers go ballistic over teacher dress code in West Va.)

During that fracas, former West Virginia Education Association president Tom Lange argued that teachers can’t be expected to do their jobs competently and also dress respectably.

“It’s pretty tough to enforce and just another thing on people’s plates that they’ve got to try to deal with and they’ve got enough stuff to deal with and worry about,” Lange said.

Of course, West Virginia isn’t the only state to have public school teachers who cannot dress themselves tastefully without regulatory intervention. In August, the Little Rock, Ark. school district announced plans for a 2014 dress code that will require teachers to wear underwear. Every single day. Female teachers will have to wear bras, too. (RELATED: Little Rock school district will now make teachers wear underwear)

“Foundational garments shall be worn and not visible with respect to color, style, and/or fabric,” a letter explaining the Little Rock policy read. “No see-through or sheer clothing shall be allowed, and no skin shall be visible between pants/trousers, skirts, and shirts/blouses at any time.”

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