prez.tam.083017.006.JPG

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, visits an honors English class at Fontainebleau High School in Mandeville on Aug. 22, 2017. Fontainebleau is one of six public schools in St. Tammany Parish that does not require students to wear uniforms.

Advocate Staff photo by SOPHIA GERMER

Faced with an outpouring of opposition from a near-capacity crowd at a meeting Thursday night, the St. Tammany Parish School Board backed away from a proposal to require uniforms next year for all of the school system's nearly 39,000 students.

The idea was recommended by a School Safety and Security Committee of administrators, principals, teacher and parents who said that having all students wear uniforms would make unauthorized outsiders on campuses more easily recognizable.

However, parents and students who addressed the board argued that the change would not make students safer but would interfere with freedom of expression and would show that the School Board did not honor parental votes at the six schools that do not now require uniforms.

The board voted 8-6 in favor of a substitute motion to have parental votes next school year at those schools: Covington High, Fontainebleau High, Lakeshore High, Mandeville High, Pearl River High and Lee Road Junior High.

Board member Mary K. Bellisario pointed out that all but one of those schools, Lakeshore, were due to have parental votes on uniforms next year anyway.

She said the system's policy since 1998 of allowing parents to decide on a school-by-school basis has served the parish well and shouldn't be changed.

Almost 50 parish schools, including all elementary schools, now require uniforms. 

Several School Board members said they planned to vote no on any change. It was a huge shift from last week, when the board, meeting as a committee of the whole, voted 10-3 in favor of mandatory uniforms.

The board members all face re-election this fall. 

Most of the speakers who objected to requiring uniforms were unhappy about the idea of overruling parental votes.

Rulon McKay said the board was sending the message to parents that all anyone needs to do to overrule their voice is form a committee. "Leaders make a lot of decisions ... but the stockholders decide what leaders they want," he said.

Olivia Christopher, a junior at Mandeville High School who started an online petition opposing uniforms after last week's meeting, said that she had collected 2,900 signatures in a week.

Five of the schools in question are high schools, she said, where some students are old enough to vote.

Christopher said the proposal to require uniforms didn't represent students on free and reduced-price lunches who can't afford to buy new clothes, the seniors who would have to buy uniforms for just one semester, transgender students or students with more than one home, who might have to buy multiple sets of uniforms.

Mandatory uniforms would take a toll on school spirit, morale and attitude, she added.

Kayla Pagel, a parent with two students at Mandeville High, noted that she and her husband are career military members and chose to wear uniforms. But changing the policy on school clothing "breaks an implicit contract with parents that's been in place for the last 20 years ... it leads to the perception that what we have to say doesn't count," she said. 

Opponents were also skeptical that mandatory uniforms would improve school security. Colin Branton of Pearl River pointed out that his children are frequently offered the opportunity to not have to wear their uniforms to school in exchange for a small donation to a charity

"So for $1 or $2, my kids can be dangerous that day?" he said. "It's like the police saying that for a dollar I don't have to wear a seatbelt."

On the other hand, Branton said, he supported the idea of putting school resource officers on every campus — another measure recommended by the safety committee.

"Nothing stops a person with a gun like a person with a gun," he said.

That measure and one to put a mental health professional on each campus were praised by people at the meeting and were passed unanimously, despite the $4 million price tag.

The security committee made its suggestions in an effort to enhance security at St. Tammany schools in the wake of school shootings such as the one in Parkland, Florida, in February that killed 17 students and faculty.

Though there have been no such tragedies in St. Tammany, local schools did have numerous incidents this year in which students made threats against their schools or classmates and were disciplined and, in some cases, arrested.

Voting in favor of the substitute motion to call for parental votes at the six schools now without uniforms were Elizabeth Heintz, Michael Dirmann, Jack Loup, Michael Nation, Willie Jeter, Peggy Seeley, Sharon Drucker and Robin Mullett.

Neal Hennegan, Charles Harrell, Ronald Bettencourtt, Robert Womack, Richard Hursey and Bellisario voted no.

Dennis Cousin was absent.