Baggy is definitely in.
But baggy (often pegged gang attire) is absolutely out--at least in some school hallways.
As the new school year begins, Orange County high school students face tougher dress codes fashioned by school districts trying to crack down on clothes deemed disruptive to the learning environment or detrimental to student safety.
Now teen-agers and their parents are grappling with the mixed messages: fall fashions versus school rules.
Frustration was apparent in teen-agers and parents alike during a recent weekend of back-to-school clothes shopping at Westminster Mall. The majority of stores have prominent displays of baggy jeans, chains hanging from belt loops, shirts depicting graffiti and other no-no’s according to many dress codes.
Clothing stores apparently have no intention of changing their stock.
JC Penney at Huntington Mall recently had a 25% off sale, and baggy clothes “were the first things to go,” salesclerk Nicole McGuire said. “The dress codes haven’t had any effect at all on sales.”
“I like big and baggy clothes because they’re comfortable,” Marina High freshman Jaime Scribner, 14, said while browsing at Westminster Mall. Jaime plans to purchase the clothes she wants to wear. “I’m not concerned,” she said of the consequences, which vary from school to school.
“I’m having a hard time right now dealing with baggy pants,” said Neil Snowden, Westminster High vice principal. “It can mean gang association, but it’s also just a fashion trend. I can’t say that everyone who wears baggy pants is a gangster, because that’s not true.” Baggy pants are not banned at Westminster High.
“It would help if the manufacturers would make clothes that fit,” said Sara Soriano as she shopped at Westminster Mall with son Brian, 16, a junior at Los Alamitos High.
When Brian tried on a pair of slightly baggy jeans, his mother looked concerned. “Do they shrink?” she asked the salesclerk.
Parent Cindi Tranker, shopping with her 15-year-old daughter, Jessie, a sophomore at Bolsa Grande High School in Garden Grove, says that schools are correct to impose some limits on dress. “I think they have to have something,” Tranker said. “I think they’re too lax in some things kids are allowed to wear.”
Capistrano Unified Supt. James A. Fleming said he believes retailers are causing the biggest problem. Some clothing companies appear to promote tagging and send a message “that it’s the ‘in’ thing to glorify the concept of graffiti.”
That point of view has hounded the Tag Rag clothing line, a Los Angeles-based business that produces retro, vintage-Americana clothing.
“We were arbitrarily singled out as a cause of a nationwide problem,” said Michele Dahan, owner and co-founder of Tag Rags. “There is absolutely no link between graffiti and my company.”
Although the company was named 10 years ago, the current tagging craze has made the clothes guilty by association. “Tag” refers to the label that hangs from a garment, and “Rag” means old clothes, says the company.
“Where we need to draw the line is on underground companies that have graphics and characters with guns and profanity. My company is trying to get the word out against graffiti,” Dahan said.
Pacifica (Garden Grove) High School senior Kevin Zwick, 17, a clothing store employee at Huntington Mall, says he is concerned about off-brand shirts that glorify graffiti.
“Tagging is illegal, and it’s really stupid to glorify that you do that,” he said. “Clothes that are obviously glorifying tagging and graffiti are wrong. It’s not the style that I’m against, it’s the design of having spray cans and graffiti on the shirts.”
Still, says Kevin, students should have the right to wear what they want. “I understand that the administration has a reason to protect us, but at school we’re just dressing in fashion,” he said.
Capistrano’s Fleming says stringent dress codes are for the welfare of the students. “We are not going to outlaw standard kinds of clothing. If the jeans are a little baggier than normal, we’re not going to confiscate (them). But we are waging war on T-shirts that are sexist, demeaning or advertising alcohol or drugs.”
“It’s not just gang attire we are seeking to correct,” Fleming continued. “Some students are coming to school in clothes that would compromise modesty. Both males and females are coming in bare midriffs, halter tops and too-short shorts.”
By banning specific clothing items that are deemed disruptive, school officials say they are trying to protect students and maintain a studious atmosphere.
“If clothing can cause a distraction or provide one group to confront another group, that’s what we’re trying to eliminate,” said Joe Tafoya, an assistant superintendent of the Santa Ana Unified School District. “The obvious goal is to provide a safe and secure environment.”
But what about the students’ right to expression?
Raleigh Levine of the American Civil Liberties Union said the courts have held that students can be forbidden from doing something that causes a material and substantial disruption on the school environment.
“In terms of dress, things would have to be pretty extreme to cause that kind of disruption,” Levine added. “They would have to be able to prove, and not just speculate, that it would cause a material and substantial disruption in order to ban it.”
Says Santa Ana’s Tafoya: “If we have suspected gang members reacting to other suspected gang members because of clothing, that’s disrupting the educational process.”
Silvia Argueta, a staff attorney with the ACLU, said that “it’s valid as long as they can show a connection between the violence or disruption on campus and the clothes they’re trying to ban.”
“There’s always an isolated incident where one student tests the code, but we haven’t had any widespread negative reaction,” said Jim Beirne, vice principal of supervision and attendance at Marina High in Huntington Beach. “You have to judge the rights of one versus the safety of others.”
Westminster’s Snowden believes dress codes help a school set a tone. “I see society getting worse, not necessarily the school getting worse. In the six or seven hours (students are) here, it’s peaceful and fun and they’re learning. I can’t control what’s going on outside the school; my job is keeping the school itself nonviolent.”
Whatever the merits of the policy, few people--students or not--like being told what they can and can’t wear.
Bolsa Grande High junior Phuong Le, 16, doesn’t see much of a solution to the problems in the push for dress codes: “I don’t think it’ll help, because kids don’t obey what adults say, anyway.”
Trisha Ginsburg, a recent graduate of Los Alamitos High School, is a regular contributor to High Life.