EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

September 28, 2012

Timberlane wages silly war over a girl's sleeve length

The Eagle-Tribune

---- — Elizabeth Skerry is a teenager who plays by the rules — when they make sense.

Now, she’s a rebel with a cause.

The Timberlane Regional High School junior has launched a petition drive, calling on school administrators to reconsider the new dress code.

It started when Skerry, an honor student who works part time at the town library, was stopped in the hallway by Principal Donald Woodworth and told her first-day-of-school outfit violated the code.

It seems Skerry’s top, which features cap sleeves, caught Woodworth’s eye. After she explained her backpack straps had pulled up her sleeves, making it appear she was going sleeveless, Woodworth sent her on her way. But first he warned her she likely would be stopped by other teachers.

Skerry’s outfit was a black skirt, correctly hitting below mid-thigh, and a neat blouse with short sleeves. The school’s stringent dress code bans sleeveless shirts.

Much of the dress code makes sense — no very short skirts or shorts, no clothing promoting drug or alcohol use, no bare midriffs, no pajamas or yoga pants.

Tank tops and exposed bra straps are one thing, but sleeveless tops can be tasteful and professional. Many women routinely wear them to work, especially in warm weather.

In fact, the outfit that landed Skerry in the line of fire would be considered appropriate attire in many workplaces.

Her problems didn’t end with Woodworth. Skerry decided to offer other students an opportunity to weigh in on the dress code. She created a Facebook page about the “Right to Bare Arms.”

Two days later, she was pulled out of class by the assistant principal and another school staff member. Their intent appears to be one of intimidation. When Skerry, 17, admitted the page was hers, the adults suggested she had ruined her chances of being admitted to an Ivy League school, even future employment.

Justifiably frightened, the teenager took her campaign out of social media and into a written petition, asking the School Board to reconsider the dress code.

Two weeks later, she made a thoughtful presentation to the School Board. A committee has been charged with reviewing the dress code. Skerry said she’s not optimistic anything will change.

But something already has. A student, who aspires to a legal career some day, suffered an injustice and decided to do something about it. Part of educating young adults is teaching them to question, to challenge, to act. It would seem Timberlane — or Skerry’s parents — have done a good job there.

As for Skerry ruining her chances for further education or employment, it sounds as though she has the fodder for a winning application essay right here.

Timberlane officials are right to expect students to dress appropriately, but banning sleeveless shirts goes too far.

Administrators might do well to turn their attention instead to behavior that actually does threaten students’ ability to learn. Last year, Plaistow police responded to 10 drug-related calls at the school. So far this year, there have been eight, so that number will likely top last year’s total.

Principal Woodworth and other administrators ought to focus less on minutiae like measuring a girl’s sleeve length and more on fostering an atmosphere of community and learning.

In this case, it sounds like the principal — er, principle — of the thing.