Hamilton Southeastern school board discusses handbook changes


A work session July 12 focused on updates to the Hamilton Southeastern Schools student handbooks, including a discussion about dress codes. 

The HSE Board of Trustees took no action during the work session but gave direction and provided feedback to staff. The usual process for amending handbooks would mean any changes would have to wait for the 2024-25 school year, but some board members expressed interest in implementing the changes earlier. The issue will come before the board during its July 26 meeting. 

The liveliest discussion focused on language related to student clothing. Board member Suzanne Thomas was the most vocal, stating that she wants stronger language prohibiting certain styles. 

“I don’t think the skin should be showing at all,” she said. “Nothing see-through. We have to make sure our kids are not wearing inappropriate clothing that’s see-through. If you’re going to wear skirts or dresses, (you have to make sure) that you’re covered. Shirts should have sleeves with no midriffs or bellybutton exposed. There should be no plunging necklines, excessive back exposure or visible undergarments.”

Thomas referred to a dress code from another school district that talked about the correlation between proper dress and good conduct. It notes that the major responsibility rests in the home, but that the school has an interest in maintaining a proper learning environment, and that school is not the place for “extreme” fashion choices that “violate cultural standards for modesty.” 

Board member Juanita Albright said school is a student’s job, and they need to dress appropriately for that job, in preparation for their future careers. 

HSE Chief Equity Officer Nataki Pettigrew cautioned the board about inserting language that can be seen as shaming toward female students. 

“This comes across as misogynistic and targeted against girls,” she said. 

Board member Sarah Parks-Reese, who was wearing a sleeveless shirt, disagreed with adding the language that Thomas proposed. 

“I hope my shoulders haven’t been too distracting for you today,” she said. “I think our wording on dress code now is fine.”

Thomas said Parks-Reese’s shirt was not a spaghetti-strap style, which is what Thomas objects to. 

The existing handbook already does not allow spaghetti-strap tops for high school students. 

By the end of the discussion about dress code, the board in general supported adding language that prohibited hats and hooded sweatshirts with the hood worn up, unless a teacher allows that in their class or a student with special needs is granted an exemption.

The board also talked about reinstating lunch time visits by parents, a practice that was halted during COVID-19. School district officials said they would prefer to not bring it back. They cited added staff time and responsibilities, and the capacity to accommodate parents who show up for lunch. 

Board members, however, generally preferred allowing lunchtime visits. Board member Ben Orr said the district could limit the numbers and require parents to sign up ahead of time on a first-come, first-served basis, to limit capacity issues. 

“Make it safe, make it efficient and everyone must fall under the code of conduct,” he said, adding that he believes it’s a good way to engage parents. 

Some board members had previously wanted the handbook to not allow cellphone use and suggested that phones must be kept in student lockers or book bags. Administrators pointed out that some teachers incorporate cell phones into lessons, and that access to phones is a safety concern. 

The July 12 work session started at 7:30 a.m. that day and lasted about two hours. It was the first of three school board meetings that day, with a special meeting set for 5:30 p.m., and a regular meeting that began around 7:30 p.m., lasting through 10:30 p.m.

During the regular meeting, several people spoke during public comment about the handbook work session. Mack Lapp, a recent Fishers High School graduate cited a federal study that he said shows 90 percent of dress code rules target female students.

“This reinforces the idea that girls are responsible for the actions of others,” he said. “The focus of this conversation should be about respect, but it’s focusing on how girls should be covered up.”

Other speakers also expressed concern about the dress code discussion, and about the board potentially implementing changes sooner than called for in the established process.