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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

FULL REPORT: Jedi Knights, prison stripes and black armbands convince school board to rescind school uniforms order

Last night the Rockingham County Board of Education, after months of outright frustration on the part of parents, students and other citizens, voted 7 to 3 – and with 2 abstentions – to rescind its April vote to implement Standard Mode Of Dress (the euphemism for school uniforms) at Reidsville Middle and Reidsville High schools starting with this upcoming academic year.

Now for the full skinny on what went down, at least from the vantage point of one of the members of P.O.T.S.M.O.D. (People Opposed To Standard Mode Of Dress) ...

After last month's meeting, when members of the board refused to acknowledge citizens' concerns about the uniforms and the legitimacy of the initial vote, I had vowed to show up at the July meeting dressed in my Jedi Knight costume: admittedly, and I even said this last night, as an "attention-getting device". And that's exactly what I did. I put on the outfit early yesterday afternoon and wore it when Tracey McCain from WFMY News 2 came by to do a quick interview. Earlier she went to the house of Samantha Fettig – who deserves bigtime props for her leadership of P.O.T.S.M.O.D. these past several months – and covered the students there who were working on picket signs to carry outside the schools' Central Office yesterday afternoon. A little after 4 p.m. I left home and headed to the office. Vehicles from WFMY News 2 and WXII Channel 12 were already there, and a short while later a huge "mobile studio" from WXII rolled into the parking lot.

A few minutes after that Samantha Fettig, Susan Imus, Wendy Inman and the high school students who've been part of P.O.T.S.M.O.D. arrived with their signs. Samantha's son Chris Fettig also showed up… dressed as a prison-striped convict! WXII's Melissa Marsh interviewed us for a quick story to run during the 6 o'clock news. Here’s the clip ...

And here are the students and several of the adult members of P.O.T.S.M.O.D. protesting the uniforms on the other side of Harrington Highway across from the Central Office ...

And just for the record: wearing a Jedi costume – which includes two layers of shirts, a tabard, a waist sash (all muslin), thick belt and heavy cloak over all of that, in 90-plus degree hot July sun ... tends to make one a little sweaty, to put it mildly. But, it was way too much fun to have done that, especially for a good cause :-)

I went back up into the office at about 5:30 'cuz by that point the heat in that outfit really had become somewhat overwhelming. Going in I saw board chairwoman Elaine McCollum (who was also my old high school homeroom teacher), board members Lorie McKinney and John Smith and Nell Rose, and school superintendent Rodney Shotwell. Ummmm I think "amused" would be a good way of putting their reaction to my attire ... but in a good way, not the "oh Lord this guy's a nutball he's not going to try to do the Jedi mind trick on us is he?" sort of way.

I went downstairs to the board meeting room and it wasn't long before there was a considerable media presence getting ready to cover the meeting: Melissa Marsh's crew from WXII, Erich Spivey and his team from WFMY, and Kira Mathis from News 14 Carolina. Also on hand were Heather Smith from the Reidsville Review and Jonelle Davis from the News & Record.

The meeting convened and after the traditional Pledge of Allegiance, then approval of the agenda and with no intervening business, Elaine McCollum declared the public comments portion of the meeting to be open.

Now, I must confess here that I didn't take good notes during public comments about who exactly said what. By this point I was really struggling to stay cool (in the thermal energy sense) and focused, and all the stuff that I had in my hands didn't allow for much dexterity in taking notes. But the following will give you a pretty strong idea of what happened during comments. Here are some photos (thanks to Erinn Murphy for taking these!) ...

Here are the news stories covering the meeting ...

- Reidsville Review: "No uniforms for Reidsville students" by Heather Smith

- WFMY News 2: "'Jedi Knight' opposed school uniforms" by Erich Spivey

- News 14 Carolina: "School board backs off dress code" by Kira Mathis

- WGHP Fox 8 News: "Reidsville Abandons Plans for School Uniforms" by Angela Rodriguez

- News & Record: "Board rescinds uniform decision" by Jonelle Davis

And here are some YouTube clips of news stories about the meeting ...

WXII News Channel 12:

WFMY News 2:

News 14 Carolina:

Here is the full text of my remarks before the board (yup, made while wearing the full Jedi Knight getup :-).

At around 8 o'clock, during the Consent items on the Agenda, a brief recess was called for. After the meeting resumed, the board went through the Action items and spent considerable time discussing issues pertaining to year-round schools. This went on until around 9:20, when the meeting arrived at Reports/Discussion items and after Dr. Shotwell gave a series of reports, the evening finally arrived at item 7.3: the superintendent's report on Standard Mode of Dress implementation for the next school year.

Dr. Shotwell absolutely must be commended for following through with another survey – this one giving the parents the option of choosing NOT to be in favor of the school uniforms – in light of how much confusion and accusation and appearances of impropriety that surrounded the earlier survey. According to the figures from this new survey, which was taken around June 23rd, combining the results of polling parents of students at both schools yielded a strong 57 percent opposed to Standard Mode Of Dress, compared to 42 percent who said that they were in favor of the uniforms: a marked reversal from the stats of the initial survey.

Dr. Shotwell, for the purpose of relaying to the board his report on feasibility of implementing SMOD at Reidsville Middle and Reidsville High schools this coming year, talked about his research and discussion with administrators at schools that do have uniforms, particularly talking about the experience that one middle school in neighboring Guilford County is having with the uniforms. Which on the surface seems to be a rousing success there. The thing that makes SMOD a fairly feasible thing in Guilford County and that is lacking in Rockingham County, Shotwell noted and what was discussed at length in the ensuing dialogue, was that many lower-income students with SMOD in Guilford can be accommodated with the required attire out of the generosity of local contributors, be they individuals or corporate and other larger interests. And the fact is, there is no comparable "charitable infrastructure" in Rockingham County that could likewise help lower-income families acquire enough needed uniforms if SMOD were enacted. Because of this, Shotwell made the recommendation to wait at least a year before implementing SMOD at the two schools.

What happened after that was easily the liveliest – some might even say chaotic – discussion among the board members that I've seen in a year of regular attendance. Whether the schools were the least bit prepared to enact SMOD was an issue immediately pounced-upon. At-large member Lorie McKinney asked if the board was ready to decree which items of clothing that students could wear, and noted that some students are allergic to certain fabrics: was that matter being taken into consideration? The issue of discipline for those students who refuse to adhere to SMOD was addressed: Dr. Shotwell said that schools would try to be prepared to assist students if they needed it (i.e. the teachers at the schools he studied had 3 belts per classroom, to lend to students who did not have belts of their own to wear). Chronic violation of the uniforms mandate would result in calls to parents, then in-school suspension and then corrective action at the principal's discretion.

Celeste DePriest – one of the four who voted in April to not implement SMOD – said that she still did not believe in enacting this policy. Reida Drum – one of the nine who voted for the uniforms – expressed that it was a good policy that should be followed-through on. Dr. Jim Austin, who also voted for the uniforms, then asked if there was an "escape clause" available as an opt-out for those parents who did not want or could not otherwise participate in school uniforms for their children. I overheard a number of people in the audience note that there were a lot of reasons why parents would not want their children to wear uniforms … which could possibly even include religious reasons (I've known some Christian families who maintain a strict dress code among their own for their children: SMOD as was voted upon in April would even violate many of these families' beliefs on modest dress).

Then Dr. Austin started talking about the support in the community for Standard Mode of Dress. He stated that he believed the numbers from both surveys could be considered accurate: "People change their minds," he noted, and that there had obviously been a "valid change of statistics." Austin said that he was now very much troubled about the prospect of putting in place a policy that there was no longer support for, and that he had to question how he could go on supporting it.

Dr. Austin made the motion to put the matter up for a vote to rescind the April vote of approval for SMOD. "The time has not come in Rockingham County for uniforms," he said, adding that this would be an unwise policy without gradual adjustment to the idea beginning with earlier grades, and that without an escape clause out of SMOD that the system would be wide-open to legal challenges.

Board chairwoman Elaine McCollum seconded the motion.

And then Ron Price – honest folks I am not out to "get" this guy, he does it all on his own to demand the ridicule – had to weigh in. Price said that he agreed with Dr. Austin that there had been a change in public opinion, but he said that the earlier decision to implement the uniforms was sound and should be upheld. Then Price totally lost it: he outright blamed a "small group in the community" that was making "loud noise" for "changing public opinion". Yes, Ron Price said that ladies and gentlemen: that people had changed their minds and that he did not like it. He did everything short of calling out names of individuals for their "activities" in spreading the word about the uniforms. But when he expressly called out Reidsville television station WGSR for giving P.O.T.S.M.O.D. an outlet for its views and blatantly said that WGSR was "bad for the community" ... well, not for the first time in a school board meeting, I saw and heard members of the audience chuckling and laughing at Ron Price.

The guy has lost it. I hate to say this, but when an elected official lets a tiny teevee station get stuck up his craw and that he has to lash out like this ... well, it doesn't exactly inspire confidence in that official, does it? I heard one person say that Price sounded like "a whiney teenager". Which is ironic 'cuz I've watched and listened to a lot of real teenagers get up to speak since this all started, and none of them ever acted like how Ron Price did last night.

(Look when something sticks out like a gangrenous thumb, the tendency is to point to it, ya know?)

Elaine McCollum then said that she had been thinking a lot about this matter in the past month and that she had especially "been listening to children really closely". And, McCollum said she had come to realize, the SMOD issue had become something that it had been thought it would avoid: dividing the community. "We need to cancel out that vote," McCollum proclaimed, "and start over only if there is real interest."

Reida Drum then brought up a survey that had been conducted in April: one that it was said did give parents a clear option of voting "no" to the Standard Mode Of Dress. That survey, Drum announced, was 53.1 percent in favor of the uniforms and 46.9 percent opposed: practically the opposite again of the June survey figures. Lorie McKinney quickly noted that some people who were contacted for the April survey were parents of students who were no longer students at Reidsville High School: "I see definite questions about this survey," McKinney said, adding that she knew of one person whose child was already well out of the schools and thus she should have no say in the matter. "She's a taxpayer," Drum responded. Some in the audience very quickly pointed out that if this was the case, then all the taxpayers in Reidsville should have been polled about whether they supported the uniforms.

And now, Herman Hines chimed in, with what had to be the most colorful and impassioned spiel coming out of the board during the entire night. Once more, Hines indicated that he was going to abstain from a vote to rescind, on the same grounds for his abstention from the April vote: that unless this was something affecting students county-wide, he wasn't going to have anything to do with it. But he said some things that I believe haven't been stated very much in these proceedings: that the matter of clothing is something that ultimately is the responsibility of the child's parents. "It starts at home," Hines said. That unless the mother and father take an interest in their children and lay down the boundaries of what their children can and cannot do, then anything the schools tried to do was really a moot thing. Hines did heavily imply that the schools absolutely do have a say-so in how the students come dressed, and that when he was an educator he had a policy of confiscating hats and caps from students who already knew that those were not allowed: "When I retired in 1985 I had a lot of hats and caps," he quipped, to considerable chuckling from the audience.

Personally, I thought that Herman Hines had a lot of good things to say. Maybe not necessarily about Standard Mode Of Dress directly as an issue, but he is right: unless the parents do involve themselves with their children, beginning in the home, then there's really very little that the schools can do for those children.

Throughout this entire discussion by the board, it was becoming creepingly obvious – and eventually blame was laid directly on this – that the administrators at the two schools had, intentionally or not, encouraged the belief that there was widespread support for Standard Mode Of Dress ... and that this led to a lot of mis-information. By this point it was being widely agreed by most that the entire process that had led to the April vote to approve the uniforms had been "sloppy" and with little real thought or consideration. Tim Scales was especially emphatic in registering his disgust with the process: "I will never support SMOD in Rockingham County again because of how this was handled."

Wayne Kirkman had some of the final remarks of the discussion, protesting that "we didn't just make up the SMOD dress code. We thought we had the information." He then said that "we've taken a lot of heat for the past four months" about the uniforms. Earlier during the public comments portion of the meeting, Kirkman – while never mentioned by name – was referenced in derision by many speakers (including Yours Truly) for his comments in Sunday's Reidsville Review that "School is about learning, not about individuality. It's about how to find a job."

Finally, the vote was called for.

Voting "yes" to rescind the April vote to implement Standard Mode Of Dress at the two Reidsville schools: Celeste DePriest, Lorie McKinney, Amanda Bell, Elaine McCollum, Nell Rose, Jim Austin, and Reida Drum.

Voting "no" to rescind the April vote to implement Standard Mode Of Dress at the two Reidsville Schools: Wayne Kirkman, Ron Price, and John Smith.

Abstaining from the vote were Herman Hines and Tim Scales. Scales announced his abstention by saying aloud that "I've had enough of this!"

Standard Mode Of Dress was rescinded – not postponed or otherwise delayed, but completely done away with – with 7 votes out of 12 that could have possibly been cast.

The rejoicing from P.O.T.S.M.O.D. was politely delayed until the board members finished with two additional items, after which it was announced that the board would have to go into closed session for discussion of personnel items. But before they closed the doors, there were several minutes of reaction and outright jubilation on the part of the SMOD opponents, and the members were thanked for their vote to rescind the policy. After all these months of tension and frustration, it was finally over.

And, a lot of people didn't hesitate to let their hair down a bit in the spirit of the moment. While I was at the front of the room meeting with several of the board members, Dr. Shotwell produced something out from under his place at the table, that he had made it a point to go looking through storage for this just so he could have it at this meeting ...

Here he is, Dr. Rodney Shotwell, Superintendent of Rockingham County Schools, with a full Darth Vader mask sitting on his desk:

And here are "the Two Chrises" - Fettig and Knight - in their costumes:

By the way, all while this was going on, I might have just been seeing things but I could have sworn that Ron Price, while sitting at his place at the table, was using a small flash camera to snap at least two photos of me after the meeting. Curious, that ...

After the meeting went into closed session, the P.O.T.S.M.O.D. people congregated in the parking lot. There was a lot of hugging and high-fiving and chest-thumping and plain-out celebration! We hung out for about a half-hour, then went home. But from the looks of all the e-mails that have been flying among the members, this was definitely a binding experience that, I really can't help but think that brought us together in a very unique and powerful way and that's something that will always last.

The people of P.O.T.S.M.O.D., I can't say enough how much of an honor and privilege it has been to work with Samantha and David and Chris and Wendy and Eddie and Susan and Bob and Terri and Cliff and Sherion and Judy and Rebekah and Erinn and Angela and Tina and Melanie and Jill ... and anyone else that I might have momentarily slipped my mind (not kidding folks: I sorta did get some heat exhaustion from that crazy lil' Jedi stunt yesterday, so my brains are a bit frazzled at the moment).

Sometimes, the good guys do win.

Thank you to everyone in P.O.T.S.M.O.D. who worked so long and hard, and sacrificed so much, to see this happen last night.

And to the members of the Rockingham County Board of Education who voted to rescind the vote and remove the uniforms policy: from the bottom of my heart, thank you. I've said twice now that if you would admit to having made this mistake and would make amends for it, that you would win our respect. Last night, you definitely did that. The stock that I have put in you has gone up tremendously because of this.

The right thing was done last night. Time to move forward. But always remember: this moment has been won ... but P.O.T.S.M.O.D. will still always be out there, somewhere, if there's ever a need to call for them again. We're like Batman: we lurk and we watch and when we have to we come out. And like Batman, we don't tire easily either.

Y'all remember that :-)


Anonymous said...

Frankly, I think you're all a bunch of babies for fighting uniforms. Standard dress has been proven to be a help to reducing strife in schools and in this day and age, every little bit that can be done is worth it.

So, congrats on the victory. Not that it's going to make anything better.

Anonymous said...

Man, you rock! Not only did you stand up against those crummy uniforms, you also brought peace & prosperity to the Republic... for a time. Very worthy of notation in the archives of the Jedi Order.

Seriously now, well done.

P.S. Pay no mind to the first person who posted. You showed alot of guts wearing a Jedi costume to a meeting like that while that poster didn't have the grapefruits to even put his/her name by their critical comment.

Jenna St.Hilaire said...

Wow, I hope your heat exhaustion hasn't left you with any continuing effects! Lots of Gatorade, my friend.

I read your speech and it was very eloquent. The Bible part was my favorite. Must've packed a lot of punch coming from a Jedi :-)

To "Anonymous": you missed the point just here: If this issue had been merely a matter of "reducing strife", then fighting it has less of a claim on reason. Uniforms have had success when used at the right time and place. This had practically nothing to do with reducing strife and everything to do with the BOE potentially passing legislation to which the parents and students were strongly opposed and that would cause hardships for the families.

And back to Chris: Great report, and congratulations again. Those news stories were awesome :-D

Anonymous said...

I must admit I'm mixed about this. Studies have shown time and time again that schools with uniform dress policies tend to have less behavioral problems and higher grades. However I do believe at the same time that school uniforms should only be implemented if the majority of the community is in favor of it. This is simply because if they community is not in favor of it then you are creating a bigger problem by making them pay money for new clothes for their kids.

Congrats for sticking up for what you believe in.

Anonymous said...

Excellent summary of Monday Night's meeting. I commend everyone that excersied their right to freedom of speech by calling, writing, and speaking in public to the school board regarding SMOD. It takes a lot of courage (for students and adults) to stand up for what you believe in. I'm so thankful the BOE listened and rescinded their April vote.

Anonymous said...

I would bet my firstborn child that the first post was made by Ron Price himself. It sounds like something he wound say.

Anonymous said...

I fear when my newborn is in school, students and parents will fight for there "rights" for clothing but not demand high quality education, permanent suspension of troublemakers and things that are actually important for an education. I guess my rights are being violated tomorrow when I am wearing a white button up shirt, a red or black tie and a black or dark blue suit. Please Jedi save me from being forced to wear a business UNIFORM. I fully support fighting for what you believe in it is just too bad people believe clothing is more important than substance in a public school.

Anonymous said...

Ron Price is an asshat. An elected official who says the things he has about the people he serves should be stripped naked and whipped bleeding through the streets and out of town. Im glad youve been calling him out for what he is Chris we need you on that school board bad next year!!!!!!!