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YOU'RE WEARING THAT? <br> SCHOOLS TAKE CLOSER LOOK AT EXTREME ATTIRE

Bare-naked belly buttons.

Low-hanging pants with underwear showing.

Skimpy tops revealing bra straps.

Some Williamsville School Board members elected on a tax-cutting agenda are branching out from their fiscal concerns and calling on the school district to revise its dress code to keep such revealing fashion statements out of the classroom.

"It's distracting and inappropriate," said board member William Paluch. "I'm all for freedom of expression, but I think that's going too far."

Board members Ken Smith and Ralph J. Argen also are shocked by how much skin students show.

"A girl got off the bus dressed with a bare midriff. She doesn't belong here. She belongs in the red light district," Smith said. "Do we have Slut 101? Is that part of our programs?"

Not everyone agrees.

"It's a fashion thing," said board President Robert A. Schwartz. "I haven't heard teachers or building principals complaining. To me, it's addressing a problem I don't see existing."

The problem may be a fine line between what's fashionable and what's flashy.

The baggy pants and midriff tops appearing in Williamsville and other suburban schools of late made their debut in Buffalo classrooms years ago.

"Urban dress tends to be at the leading edge of fashion," said Andrew Maddigan, Buffalo school spokesman. "What the kids in the cities start out wearing is something that generally becomes acceptable by the mainstream later."

Not that Buffalo school officials were thrilled with the baggy-pants, skimpy-shirt look.

The midriffs were banned.

As for the baggy pants, that depends on how loose they are -- and how low they go. In some cases, students are just told to pull up their pants. But extreme cases aren't allowed, Maddigan said.

Student dress long has been an issue in some Buffalo schools. Recently, parents have supported voluntary school uniforms as a way to counter so-called gang attire, other suggestive or objectionable clothing and peer pressure that leads to students wanting designer jeans or $100 sneakers.

Since 1996, about five of the district's 78 schools adopted a voluntary uniform that calls for students to wear any combination of black and white.

Buffalo schools have a very detailed dress code, banning not only bare midriffs, but also certain types of jewelry, tank tops, hats, mini-skirts and short shorts.

But most of the 18 suburban dress codes reviewed generally have vague policies, which don't cite any specific clothing but do state that student dress should not interfere with education or pose a health or safety risk.

Among the few school districts whose dress code offers specifics is Frontier Central in Hamburg, which, in hindsight, may have been ahead of the times. It banned bare midriffs and clothing revealing underwear at least five years ago, said Superintendent Gerald P. Glose.

Several districts, including Williamsville, have more specific school-by-school dress codes in addition to their broader policy on school attire.

For instance, Williamsville East High School bans sun glasses and T-shirts that carry symbols of drugs, alcohol or tobacco.

Williamsville is the only district, however, with a dress code that mentions freedom of expression and students' constitutional rights.

Still, there has been little controversy in recent years over student dress in suburban schools, including Williamsville, which is known for its generally broad-minded approach to diversity and better-than-average academic programs.

Williamsville Superintendent Ann B. Fuqua declined to comment beyond saying, "Establishing district policy is a Board of Education matter."

Schwartz, the School Board president, warned that the taxpayer group's ultimate goal is to require school uniforms.

"If they get control of the board next year, that could happen," he said. "They need one more vote for the Amherst Taxpayers Association to control the Williamsville School Board."

The board is split between four taxpayer-endorsed members and five others supported by the teachers association -- three of whom are up for election this spring.

Taxpayer-aligned members denied they are intent on bringing uniforms to Williamsville.

"That's a self-serving statement. He's trying to mislead the community," Paluch said.

Paluch and Smith said they like school uniforms but believe that the community wouldn't go that far. However, both would like to see students wear dress pants and shirts with a collar to school instead of jeans and a T-shirt.

"That's what I'd like to see, but that might be more than what the community is willing to go along with," Paluch said. "The community must have input. I don't want to dictate my beliefs or my points of view."

Paluch wants a committee of parents, teachers, students, School Board members and business leaders to draft a policy.

Barry S. Eckert -- the fourth board member supported by taxpayer groups -- agrees with that proposal but doesn't want to pass judgment on how students currently dress.

Some members of the community don't see any need to make students dress up for school.

"If everyone looks the same, the individuality and character of the person would be hard to develop. Ironically, these two traits are the traits the district hopes the students will learn," said Brad Woollacott, 17, president of the Williamsville Interhigh Student Council. "Of course, there are some who take the freedom a little too far. They're very isolated incidents."

Like Woollacott and the president of the School Board, parent activist Jo Anne Smith said she hasn't seen students wearing anything too revealing.

In her experience, school administrators do a good job of making students change if they aren't dressed appropriately, and the dress code doesn't necessarily need to be revised.

"I've never seen anybody's bottoms hanging out," she said. "I've seen some of the shirts that are cropped to the waist. If they stretch or bend over, you're bound to see some skin, but I've never seen them wearing a halter top."

Of course, one person's trendy clothes are another's trashy outfit.

School Board members Smith and Argen said Schwartz doesn't see a problem with how students dress because -- in their opinion -- Schwartz doesn't always dress appropriately himself. As an example, Argen cited a recent board work session when Schwartz wore shorts, sandals and a short-sleeve shirt. Argen wore a suit and tie.

"If you dress like a slob, you'll get treated like a slob," Argen said.

Schwartz said that he was dressed appropriately for a Saturday morning session.

"That was an informal work shop, not a board meeting," he said. "We got a lot done. That's what I'm more concerned about."

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