Reviewing the Newton High School student handbook for the 2019-2020 school year has garnered a lot feedback from students, parents and other members of the public — feedback the Newton Board of Education has heard plenty of in recent meetings.

While that feedback led administration to pause some proposed changes to its Cum Laude honors system, the latest — and only other — change that came under scrutiny was an amendment to the NHS dress code, which the Newton school board discussed at its meeting on Monday.

Given at least one incident that occurred at the high school this past year, there was a proposal to add bandanas to the list of prohibited head gear in 2019-2020, to make it a more "black and white" issue — which NHS principal Lisa Moore noted was direction she had received from the school board.

However, members of the public like Fabiola Flores were concerned that taking out the flexibility of interpretation in various situations could make the dress code oppressive and ignore the feelings of a diverse community.

"I want to caution our community and also our board to be careful when we pass things," Flores said. "Don't ignore your minorities. That is my call — because I am one, and my daughter is one. Be mindful of that."

Alternative suggestions

Following the incident this school year, the Students for Racial Justice club approached the NHS Student Council about changes to the dress code — with the handling/interpretation of bandanas being a part of that. While the inclusion of bandanas among prohibited head gear was the change ultimately decided upon by administration, board member Angela Becker said she was led to believe that was far from the original intent of the club.

Becker got confirmation that the Students for Racial Justice worked on an alternative dress code that was presented to NHS administration and approved by STUCO in April, though administration said nothing more was heard about that alternative dress code until a meeting between the STUCO executive board and administration — to review the final proposed handbook changes — in late May. For that reason, Becker also stated concerns with the proposed dress code policy changes for similar reasons as the public.

"What I'm struggling with is that this addition to the dress code was the student voice, but I feel because of issues with the chain of command or lack of communication that there was a lot of work done and unanimous support from the student body on a completely different student voice," Becker said. "I'm just concerned that we add this and we maybe regret it later."

Moore said that there may be other issues — and a different outcry from parents — if the alternative dress code were adopted, but Becker questioned why there was a rush to adopt this updated dress code policy in 2019-2020. She proposed taking the issues back to the student body, getting more feedback and reconsidering dress code changes for 2020-2021.

Administration also noted that part of the rationale behind the push to include bandanas among prohibited head gear is uniformity — both within the district (at Chisholm Middle Schools) and out, with fellow AVCTL schools Maize and Valley Center implementing similar policies.

Affiliations and safety

Former CMS and incoming NHS assistant principal Everardo Flores spoke to the issues he was seeing at CMS — particularly with students transferring in from Wichita — regarding bandanas and their ties to gang symbolism. Even paisley print ties can be an issue, Flores said, because their pattern is similar to that of a bandana — noting that while working in USD 259 a second grader remarked to him that his dad was "part of the blue, too" because of a tie Flores had worn to work.

"At the end of the day, that symbolizes something, whether we have the intention or not, whether we're gang members or not," Flores said. "Once we step out of that environment, that means something to somebody else."

NHS school resource officer Brian Salmans echoed the sentiments of Flores in how bandanas and other clothing items can be interpreted as signaling gang affiliation.

Salmans noted the Newton Police Department is seeing an influx of traffic from juvenile gang members coming to Newton from Wichita. While he is all for a safe environment where students can advocate for their own dress code, he noted that current trends mean allowing bandanas comes with some inherent risks — as Newton is not as safe as residents may hope.

"It's not Mayberry guys; it's not," Salmans said.

Overall, board member Steve Richards raised concerns over potentially oppressive issues with banning all head gear — though it was noted that policy has existed for many years. Superintendent Deb Hamm stated, however, that exceptions to that rule are reviewed on an individual basis.

Looking solely at the bandana issue (which could be open to interpretation itself), board member Jennifer Budde said the well-being of the entire student body had to be considered as a major factor when discussing that policy change.

"The overwhelming tone I'm hearing from those who are recommending the change is that we're essentially doing this for safety reasons — not only for the wearer, so that they're not taken wrong, but also for the rest of the student body so there's no insinuation of gang affiliations," Budde said. "As a board member, I have to ultimately say that I have to side on what's the safest for all of our students."

Becker continued to urge caution against potentially oppressing some students with this proposed change, but the 2019-2020 NHS student handbook was approved on a 4-2 vote (with Becker and Richards opposed). Even with that passing, though, board vice-president Carol Sue Stayrook Hobbs noted that it should come with a caveat pushing continued work on cultural sensitivity and awareness within district schools.

In other business, the Board of Education:

Heard from Rex Wittman during a period of public comment, raising issues with the special education system in USD 373.
Approved the consent agenda, including exterior restoration projects for Cooper and Chisholm, renewal of the food service program and year-end bills/transfers.
Approved the gift request of a donated Buick Regal (valued at $3,000) from Chandler Ochoa to the Newton High School auto program.
Approved a transportation service agreement with USD 259.
Received district personnel and Chisholm Middle School handbooks for review.
Discussed moving BOE committee appointments to January 2020, taking into consideration the transitional period after the fall elections.
Reviewed the proposed BOE meeting dates for the 2019-2020 school year.
Was presented with recommended policy revisions — and one entirely new policy — from the Kansas Association of School Boards to consider for adoption.
Approved the graduation requirement of 21 credits at the new Opportunity Academy, while also approving the 21 for 21 option — where students 21 or older can graduate with 21 credits — at the Harvey County Learning Center.
Approved the materials and curriculum for a new Spanish course to be offered to eighth graders at CMS starting in 2019-2020.
Approved USD 373 entering a partnership with the Integrated Referral and Intake System.
Approved the term extension for board officers until January 2020.