Limits on Fashion Statement : Schools: The Las Virgenes district adopts a strict dress code that goes beyond others. It targets vulgarity, drugs, flesh and gangs.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Las Virgenes Unified School District has adopted a strict dress code, banning clothes that advertise liquor, tobacco and drugs, show too much skin, denigrate women and minorities or incorporate gang insignia.

"We recognized . . . a proliferation of the use of garments, particularly T-shirts, for all kinds of messages," District Supt. Albert D. Marley said. "Because it was getting more common and more offensive, we felt we should go ahead and get some rules in place."

The policy, approved unanimously by the Board of Education last week, rides the crest of a trend among Southern California schools--including some in the Los Angeles Unified School District and Orange and Ventura counties--that have enacted dress codes to combat an increasing presence of gang colors and tags on campus.

But the Las Virgenes code, intended chiefly for the district's three high schools, goes a step further. In addition to banning gang-related attire, the code proscribes clothing that promotes "the use of any controlled substance" or that "features offensive and/or vulgar words, pictures, or drawings" aimed at a person's gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or disability.

District officials said no single incident or surge of complaints prompted the policy. Instead, the code culminates an effort that started nearly two years ago with Agoura High School to curb a nascent gang problem and to create an educational climate free of distractions and disruptions.

Joseph Nardo, district coordinator of curriculum and instruction and author of the code, said it gives formal backing for what is already standard practice for school administrators: dressing down students who wear clothing considered offensive or disruptive of the learning environment.

"The policy has just brought into more clear focus what administrators have done all along," he said.

The new policy charges teachers and principals with deciding whether an article of clothing violates the code. Students will be asked to turn offending T-shirts inside out or will be sent home to change.

Under the code, T-shirts sporting the likes of Spuds Mackenzie--the Budweiser beer mascot--Corona beer bottles and other liquor or tobacco products are prohibited. One teacher cited a Guns N' Roses T-shirt depicting a naked woman as an example of attire that would also come under fire.

But some teachers and many students labeled the new policy vague at best and an infringement of freedom of expression at worst.

"The overall code is so general and so inclusive," said John Reich, a social studies teacher at Calabasas High School. "What is racially offensive? What is too revealing?"

He said the code paves the way for subjective judgments and inconsistent or selective enforcement by teachers and administrators.

Meredith Heckler, 16, senior class president at Calabasas, said students perceive the move as another step in the erosion of students' freedom.

"Everyone is generally very unhappy with it. They think that it's just another thing that the administrators are doing to have control over us," she said. "It leaves it up to the administration."

But school officials said the code was deliberately left broad to permit flexibility as fashions change and as gang symbols, such as baseball caps of certain teams, become passe.

"We want it to stand the test of time rather than the test of fashion," Nardo said. "Some people might think it too vague, but on the other hand, you can't write enough words to cover every incident."

He acknowledged that determining violations of the code would be a "judgment call" but added that administrators from the district's secondary schools would meet four times this year to harmonize their approach.

An attorney with the state Department of Education said the state Education Code includes a provision allowing schools to prohibit material that can lead to "the substantial disruption of the orderly operation of the school."

"You can have more restriction of student speech on school grounds than you would otherwise, . . . because the schools have a duty to maintain control and safety on the school grounds," the attorney said.

On the Agoura High School campus, though, several students objected to the code, calling dress a matter of individual choice.

"This being a public school, we're here for our education, and they're here to teach us. What we wear should not be an issue," said senior Sean Corey Nessen, 17, whose trousers sported a pair of handcuffs that he said bothered some faculty members last year.

"People should be able to wear what they want," agreed Scott Walker, 16. "It's freedom of expression."

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