Two high school seniors at Bolivar Central High School in Tennessee did jail time this weekend for committing the unspeakable crime of sagging their pants, a shameless dress code violation. If you think that sounds ridiculous, it gets better worse: According to a local news outlet, the sentencing appears to be attached to an earlier incident in November, when four students were charged with indecent exposure.
So in other words, we're officially jailing teens now when they don't follow the dress code. Oh, and making sure they have the criminal record to prove it. That'll learn 'em! This is definitely about education and not about a weird power struggle, right?
Thank goodness we have so many schools willing to go to any length to ensure that children are never distracted while learning. I'm sure that these two boys' foray into the criminal justice system won't affect their education nearly as much as their exposed drawers affected their peers'.
Dress codes definitely have their place: For the most part, we will deal with them our entire lives, to varying degrees of stringency, especially once we hit the workplace. So there's a reason schools have them in their handbooks, and there's a reason disciplinary actions are doled out when kids flout them, and kids will always flout them. Then there are the schools whose reactions to a peek of boxer-clad tushie and almost visible cleavage completely defy reason.
Sending some kids to jail because they wore their pants slung low is one of those stunningly bad overreactions that only seems to happen when administrations stop focusing on schooling kids and start focusing on punishing them for their clothing, almost single-mindedly. We've definitely seen it before in all kinds of incarnations (sexist letters to the editor, Day-Glo shame suits), but actually throwing kids in the slammer?
That's a new low.
No matter how you slice it, this punishment comes nowhere near to fitting the crime. Apparently these students had been warned over and over again to pull up their pants, and the school had plenty of options for disciplinary actions in that case. Its own handbook has actions outlined for the highest level offense, a "Level Four":
"Discipline will be handled by the administration. Consequences will include but not be limited to the following: long-term suspension, expulsion, long-term placement in Learning Center."
"Included but not limited to" is a broad caveat, but most people wouldn't imagine that "jail time" might fall under that vague language, and indeed, no one seems to be able to explain how on Earth sagged jeans is a criminal offense. It just seems like punishments could have run the gamut from suspension to expulsion before they started throwing kids in jail.
What is perhaps most troubling is the reference to charges of "indecent exposure." We don't know if the kids were actually convicted, but Tennessee defines the charge in part as follows:
"Intentionally exposing one's genitals or buttocks to another or engaging in sexual contact (touching anyone's intimate parts) while reasonably expecting the act to be viewed by another and the act will offend an ordinary viewer or is done to sexual arouse the defendant, whether done in public or another's private premises."
Since saggy pants, no matter how distasteful you may find them, don't really clear this bar, it's worrying to know that these kids could be lumped in with the people whose actions do.
Dress codes have evolved into something far more authoritarian than they were meant to be, and the overreactions to them would be comical if they weren't so damaging. Despite this, it looks like they're unfortunately here to stay, and it's up to schools to enforce them.
But there's never a reason that enforcement should have kids spending a night in prison.
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