ROCKINGHAM — One Richmond County student is hoping to convince the school board to hang up the student uniform policy.
Franchesca Espinal, a junior at Richmond Senior High School, has started a petition on Change.org to eliminate school uniforms in the county.
In the text describing the petition, Espinal says uniforms are “very scarce to find around town, they are also very expensive, and do not reduce bullying.”
Espinal tells the RO that she got the idea to start the petition after reading an article in English class about how uniforms affect students.
“We as students feel very limited to what we want to wear,” Espinal said in a message to the RO. “(We) cannot express ourselves and, as a student who used to get bullied for wearing the same pair of pants, it really (affected) me. I know that a few students have experienced the same bullying about their clothes.”
According to school board documents, the policy was first adopted Jan. 10, 2002, for the 2004-2005 school year, “to provide an educational environment that is safe, conducive to learning, promotes school pride and student self-esteem.”
The policy was revised twice in 2002; four times in 2003; once each in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2009; and twice in 2011.
Students are limited to three colors for shirts, depending on the school, and must wear black or khaki pants, skirts or dresses.
At one point, Navy blue bottoms were allowed but the color was prohibited again in the 2018-2019 school year.
Students at Richmond Early College High School are not subject to the uniform policy, but still have to abide by a dress code.
However, the roots of the policy date back earlier.
Hamlet Junior High (now Hamlet Middle School) in the late ‘90s was the first in the county and one of the first 40 public schools in the nation to implement a uniform policy, according to Dr. Rick Watkins, who served as principal at the time.
“The parents were really interested in doing that at the time,” Watkins said, adding that discussions actually began while he was still principal at Monroe Avenue Elementary.
According to Watkins, the team that developed the policy and made the proposal included educators, parents and students.
“We went on some site visits and looked at other schools that had them,” Watkins said. “We even had a fashion show at Hamlet and … a couple of the companies flew their designers in from New York (to show what was available … there was a lot of excitement.”
On the first day the policy was in action, Watkins said only one student of around 850 was not in uniform — because the student was new to the area and coming in to register, unaware of the policy.
“I was amazed at that level of participation,” Watkins recalled. “But parents were engaged, students were engaged and that’s how it came forward.”
According to Watkins, there had been an issue with theft of clothing while kids were dressing out for P.E. However, after the policy went into effect, he said that dropped to almost zero.
Only one shirt was “lost” the first year and Watkins said someone had placed it behind a vending machine as a joke.
“I think it (the policy) did what it was supposed to do in terms of making everybody feel just as important as everyone else in the school,” Watkins said, adding that they saw a reduction in bullying based on clothing.
“We felt like it was extremely successful,” Watkins continued. “We had tremendous parental support, and that’s the way it needs to be done.”
As an administrator, Watkins said he felt that the teachers should “model what we ask kids to do” and wear uniforms as well.
However, he said it was the students on the committee who didn’t want to include that provision in the policy because they felt like teachers might have to do other things outside the classroom where a uniform wouldn’t be appropriate.
Watkins said a few years later there was a concern on dress at Richmond Senior and the school board took the HJH policy and mandated it at the high school and a few other schools before making it districtwide.
“That mandate didn’t take into consideration the seniors that were in their final year and would be graduating,” Watkins said, remembering a protest by 12th-graders who said the policy was unfair.
Unlike the current policy, with so many variations, Watkins said the HJH policy was limited in options so it was easier to administer.
Watkins said he still believes uniform policies have a positive impact on the students and the schools in general — in terms of security and academics, noting “we also had the highest test scores during that time.”
“I’m still in favor of them if the policy is narrow and clear and there’s student and parental involvement and educator involvement …and how it’s administered,” Watkins said. “I think when it gets broad and (there are) too many options, you have a problem.”
Espinal said she wanted to voice and recognize not only the opinions of the students, but also those of parents and teachers, who are also affected by the policy.
Former RSHS teacher Sommer Martin says she observed first-hand “how much the uniforms took away from actual learning, didn’t stop bullying and caused unnecessary financial strain.”
“As a teacher, each block had to begin with looking for uniform infractions (a waste of learning time),” Martin said in a comment on the petition page.
She added that the administration too was bogged down with uniform violations to deal with actual disciplinary issues.
“Learning would have to slow down due to repetitive bad behavior due to lack of consequences from administration because they were (too) busy with uniform write-ups,” Martin said. “That’s a crying shame. Richmond County Public Schools is supposed to be a learning institution, but the uniforms that are supposed to aid the process (somehow) are hurting more than helping.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever met a student, parent, teacher, staff member or administrator who enjoyed school uniforms or found them beneficial to the learning environment,” Martin continued. “The uniforms do not inspire excellence and are not a critical or even helpful part of the mission; they hinder learning.”
Martin echoed Espinal’s observation that students are still being “picked on by peers” because of having to repeatedly wear the same clothes.
“Isn’t this why the uniforms came into being in the first place; it was supposed that they would prevent or reduce bullying?”
Martin said she knew a student who wore the same pants — with a ripped knee and ink stains — every day for an entire semester.
“Poverty is a real problem among our students … and uniforms exacerbate the problem socially and financially,” Martin said.
“Let us realize that uniforms hinder learning, don’t decrease bullying, and strain families financially,” the former teacher concluded. “We need to make a change for the betterment of our community so that we can ensure student learning today for tomorrow’s success.”
One recently elected school board member is also in favor of ditching the policy.
“While there are some advantages to uniforms, there are far more disadvantages,” said Scotty Baldwin, who was elected last month and will be sworn-in June 30.
Baldwin said he was a sophomore at Richmond Senior when the policy went into effect.
“I was never a huge fan of it,” Baldwin said. “It didn’t stop anyone from being bullied back then and I highly doubt that it has changed any since then.”
While it does make it easier for parents to get their children ready in the mornings, Baldwin said it also “takes so much away from the children.”
Baldwin remembers being sent out of class for not wearing a belt and says he’s seen students receive after-school detention for not having their shirts tucked in — “Which made me ask myself: ‘Are we here for an education or a fashion show?’”
“We teach our kids to be individuals, yet we make them all dress exactly alike,” Baldwin continued. “Many times I’ve heard the argument, ‘Some parents can’t afford to buy their kids nice clothes” — I’m not sure how requiring the parents to buy two wardrobes is any less of a financial obligation.
“I feel like our children’s education is far more important than the distraction of a school uniform,” Baldwin said. “I would be glad to take the stance against uniforms as I will be the only board member who ever actually had to wear them.”
Espinal said the board has the power to change the policy, but students, parents and teachers need to come together to present the issue.
As of 6:30 p.m. on June 3, the petition had 2,057 signatures. On June 28, the total was at 2,085.
“I want to see the smile of students’ faces when they enter the school building knowing that they feel confident and different from what they are wearing!” Espinal said.