PHOENIX — School principals routinely bust students for dress-code violations such as wearing their skirts too short or their pants too baggy. And, every so often, they have to dress down a teacher for the same sort of fashion infractions.
In Arizona and across the country, school boards and superintendents increasingly are adopting dress codes and guidelines for teachers and other school staff, saying they should set an example for students with their own attire.
At issue are short skirts and baseball caps, skimpy tops and flip-flops, T-shirts and spandex on adults in the classroom.
New dress guidelines for staff in the Chandler Unified School District prohibit sexually suggestive clothing, including spaghetti straps and skirts more than 3 inches above the knee.
Principal Cindy Denton tells staff at Tempe's Thew Elementary School that if they could mow the lawn, exercise or go out for the evening in what they're wearing, it's likely not appropriate for school. She says, "There is a difference between professional dress and personal dress."
Brian Black, who teaches social studies at Camelback High, wears a suit every day. A 31-year teaching veteran, he believes his attire commands respect. In turn, he treats students with respect.
"If I wish a student to dress 'appropriately,' it is my responsibility to reflect such (a) standard," he says. "If I wish a student to conduct himself or herself in an socially acceptable manner, especially in the area regarding use of 'appropriate' language when in contact with others, it is my responsibility to also reflect such (a) standard."
Josh Watson, a senior at Camelback High, says when he sees teachers like Black dressed professionally, he knows "that they're really inspired to teach."
In Dysart Unified School District, the new superintendent last year suggested professional attire for all staff, including ties for the men.
Mark Maksimowicz came to Dysart, a rapidly growing 16-school district in Surprise and El Mirage, two years ago, originally from Michigan. He found dress much more casual in Arizona, sometimes showing up at education conferences and professional gatherings to find that he was the only guy in a tie.
Now more educators are dressing up, Maksimowicz has noticed, as educators find themselves in the national spotlight in the debate on high-stakes testing, accountability and state and federal labels. Wanting to appear professional, educators are dressing more businesslike.
At Dysart's Marley Park School in Surprise, Ariz., seventh-grade math teacher Bryan Matera wears a tie every day: "I think it has a profound effect on the students' behavior."
He gets compliments on his ties from students but, for the most part, they just expect to see him in one. His students wear uniforms — khaki or navy pants and collared shirts. Matera says, "They're dressing for success, and I'm dressing for success as a teacher."
But regulating dress is touchy, says Georgina Takemoto, superintendent of the Phoenix Elementary School District, where there's no written dress code for staff. Last year, though, administrators and principals vowed to dress up a bit more, and it seems to have had a ripple effect on the 16 campuses.
District officials brave enough to instill dress codes and guidelines tread lightly because staff may see policies that get too specific as restrictive or demeaning. A policy that's too broad could be enforced inconsistently.
Teachers themselves are divided about dress policies.
"A portion of my colleagues think there should be a strict dress code for teachers, but another portion think there should be no dress code and, in fact, think forcing someone to dress in a way that's not comfortable could affect their teaching style," she said.
There wasn't the roar of protest from teachers in Chandler, Ariz., that Susan Thomas, president of the Chandler Education Association, had expected. A handful were angry about being told how to dress, says Thomas, a fourth-grade teacher at Conley School, but most staff thought the guidelines simply reflected how they were already dressing.
Dress on campus varied from school to school, says Terry Locke, Chandler district spokesman: "We needed to be more consistent."
Districts tell staff to dress professionally, but few define what that actually means. This summer in Chandler, a district committee came up with the guidelines, based mostly on criteria already being used on some campuses.
There have to be exceptions, of course, as districts nationwide have discovered, for gym teachers and custodians to wear shorts, for example. Most dress codes allow teachers to wear jeans on field trips or on Fridays.