MANCHESTER, N.H. – The first-ever student-written Manchester School District policy is heading to the Manchester Board of School Committee (BOSC) for final approval.
In a unanimous vote on Tuesday night, the BOSC Policy Committee recommended an updated dress code policy primarily crafted by BOSC Student Representative and Central High School Student Kellan Barbee.
After postponement in December, the policy came back to the committee on Tuesday with minor amendments related to footwear, additional prohibitions on discriminatory language on clothing and ripped clothing.
Two middle school students testified that they were grateful for the change that would allow ripped jeans, as they felt that ripped jeans did not have a deleterious effect on the school learning environment. Manchester School District Legal Counsel Katherine Cox-Pelletier joked at a previous loophole regarding the prohibition of ripped jeans, noting that the ripped jeans could be cut off below the knee and transformed into perfectly acceptable shorts despite being roughly the same piece of clothing.
A pilot program this spring to help acclimate students to the new policy was also scrapped at the recommendation of school administrators.
Cox-Pelletier said that prohibiting specific types of clothing could engender the discrimination that the updated policy is trying to prevent, particularly given that many of the specific types of clothing are generally worn only be female students. Instead, she recommended standardized language followed by other school districts and recommended by the New Hampshire School Board Association that focuses on broader guidelines.
Barbee replied that broader guidelines have become one of the issues as to why the dress code policy change was needed, as interpretation of the policy could vary from administrator to administrator, often singling out students from different cultural backgrounds and sowing distrust between students and administrators.
Barbee did agree that more feedback is generally acceptable, but felt that the proposal was sound and felt that further discussion would create “a wild goose chase seeking things that aren’t there” given several months of feedback on the proposed policy to Barbee from school administrators and students.
Ward 11 BOSC Member Dr. Nicole Leapley agreed with Barbee’s assessment that the possibility for interpretation could lead to the inability for students to properly follow the policy.
“How does is a student able to know how someone else thinks what exactly is suitable when they are getting dressed in the morning?” Leapley asked to Cox-Pelletier.
Ward 7 BOSC Member Chris Potter echoed Leapley’s sentiments, feeling that a policy that is too broad could also cause confusion in enforcement for administrators alongside possible bias.
In response, Cox-Pelletier reiterated fears that singling out specific types of clothing worn only by certain segments of the student population could lead administrators to lead to greater scrutiny of certain students, violating the district’s principles of equity.
Ward 4 BOSC Member and Committee Chair Leslie Want agreed that more feedback and a specific timeline would be important for future discussions, but in this situation Barbee had received the support and feedback needed from the student body as well as oversight from others in the district over a multi-month period and no more deliberation was needed.
In other news during the committee meeting, a recommendation on healthcare coverage for BOSC members was tabled.
The matter was brought forward by Leapley recently after concerns regarding the impacts of premiums as well as eligibility for non-Manchester School District healthcare plans under the Affordable Care Act given that the BOSC members were provided access to these plans, which have seen increasing BOSC member contribution percentages over the past few years.
Ward 8 BOSC Member Peter Perich feared that the plans could jeopardize his access to Medicare, with benefits specialist Tom Delacey stating that Medicare benefits would only kick in after all benefits from the district plan were used.
Leapley voiced concerns with the fact that premiums are costing her family $10,000 a year while she only receives $2,000 a year to be a BOSC member, a fact that she feared could dissuade poorer members of the community from running for the BOSC.
There was also lingering confusion over whether members of the BOSC were employees or independent contractors for tax purposes. Under the district’s policies, employees of the Manchester School District are ineligible to run for the BOSC. However, it was unclear after a study of other nearby school boards whether New Hampshire school board members should be considered independent contractors or employees for tax purposes.
The fact that the BOSC members work less than 30 hours per week could classify them differently than full-time workers under the Affordable Care Act, leading to the option for the district to not unilaterally offer health and dental benefits to BOSC members.
It was also recommended by Cox-Pelletier and Delacey that no changes be made until the end of the current plan year on June 30.