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Windham: Dress code has legal precedent

WINDHAM - School officials say a legal opinion reinforces the district's authority to continue enforcing its dress code policy.

'According to legal counsel, all of the restrictions found in the Windham School District's dress code can be found in many upheld by the courts,' School Board Chairman Bruce Anderson wrote in a letter read by board member Michelle Farrell.

The goal of the policy is to provide dress guidelines for students that are practical and create a safe and appropriate learning environment, according to the letter.

'It is well-settled law that school districts can enact restrictions that require students to wear clothes that properly cover them,' the letter said.

It went on to say that 'courts will not interfere with a school district's determination of proper width of sleeveless top straps, height of shirt backs, or proper length of shorts or skirts, rather, courts will defer to the school district's judgment on what is appropriate.'

The question of constitutionality was brought up by former School Board member Michael Hatem in September. At the time Hatem said the policy violated the 'Tinker' and 'Bannister' cases in which courts ruled that student's First Amendment rights couldn't be infringed upon unless the school is trying to prevent an actual risk.

Hatem asked the School Board to stop enforcing the policy until it was re-evaluated and possibly simplified. The board and Superintendent Henry LaBranche continued to enforce the policy while getting a legal opinion.

LaBranche said neither case was a defense for calling the dress code unconstitutional and that more recent case law in the last two decades provided school districts with the authority to enforce reasonable dress codes.

'That's essentially what has been confirmed by counsel,' LaBranche said.

Staff members will monitor enforcement of the dress code and review the results at the end of the year to determine whether any modifications are necessary, LaBranche said.

LaBranche said he personally has not received any further complaints about the dress code.

School Board member Stephanie Wimmer said many parents, students and staff members have expressed support for the dress code since the issue arose.

'I have not had any other parent or student come to me with any kind of concerns,' Wimmer said.

Hatem did the right thing in raising his legal concerns, Wimmer said, and she hopes that all parents feel comfortable speaking to the board about their issues.

'We take those concerns seriously,' Wimmer said.

As a result of Hatem's actions, Wimmer said, the board did more due diligence on the policy and she's confident they're in a good place.

Michael Hatem could not be reached for comment.

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