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LAWRENCE At the beginning of the school year, Frandiego Veloz had to borrow a pair of black sneakers just to get into Lawrence High School, because his shoes had silver bands on them.

Thuan Tran received in house suspension for wearing tan corduroy pants instead of the required cotton khaki trousers.

Two years after the Lawrence School Committee instituted a uniform policy for the high school, parents and students are speaking out against rules they say are too strict. On Thursday, close to 100 angry parents and students attended the School Committee meeting to push for a change.

“The extreme that they have taken to enforce this is too much,” said Frandiego, a senior in the performing arts high school.

But school officials defend the uniforms, saying they bring a sense of pride and prepare the students for a future in college and the work force.

“We see it as a way of belonging to the community and not competing over hats or shoes,” Superintendent Wilfredo Laboy said. “In the community, if you do not keep up with the Joneses, you don’t belong. Uniforms create camaraderie among peers working toward a common goal.”

The current school uniform requires students to wear a polo shirt, khaki pants, and brown or black shoes. Before entering school, security officers and administrators check students to make sure they comply with the rules, said Thomas Sharkey, principal of the Lawrence High campus.

Those who do not are asked to step aside while their parents are called to bring in acceptable attire. If the students don’t get appropriate outfits, they are sent to in house suspension where they get the day’s assignments from their teachers.

The penalties increase in severity with each violation. According to a new policy approved by the School Committee in May, a second offense means detention. Students get in school suspension for a third violation, followed by a meeting between the parent and the principal. After a fourth offense, students receive out of school suspension.

Lawrence High senior Wanny Munoz and other students said they feel harassed throughout the day if an administrator or school security officer notices their shirts are not tucked in or they are wearing an inappropriate sweater.

Students said they are either cornered or followed to the rest rooms until they fix their uniforms.

“I have no problem with wearing a uniform,” said Wanny, who was disciplined for wearing a navy blue sweater without the school logo and had to wear her tap shoes all day because her black sneakers had a silver band on them. “I do have a problem with security guards literally harassing the students.”

Administration has ‘gone overboard’

Security officers at the 3,000 student school typically take care of the uniform infractions. But two weeks ago,
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police were called in when a discussion over a multicolored bookbag escalated. The incident led to the arrest of parent Gina Castillo and her 16 year old son.

Parents who were already irate over the uniform policy said Castillo’s arrest was the last straw over what they call the administration’s nitpicking. They cite pants with pockets on the side, wrong color sweaters and even inappropriate color shoelaces as examples where school officials have gone too far.

“It makes me very upset,” said Ramona Veras, whose daughter and niece attend Lawrence High. “At least they are going to school. I can see if they are fighting or telling off a teacher, but silly things like that?”

Maria Figueroa’s daughter, Flormarie Figueroa, an honor roll student, was suspended last year for refusing to take off her sweater.

The high school senior hasn’t had any more problems with the uniform, but the experience scarred her emotionally and academically, her mother said. The honor roll student was getting Cs and Ds after the incident.

“She’s not the same kid. She doesn’t feel comfortable and is always on guard,” Figueroa said.

She said she would like to see parents meet with teachers and administrators to get some straight answers. At last week’s meeting, School Committee members vowed to make changes and address some of the concerns that were aired, though no vote was taken.

Even School Committee members who once supported the uniform policy now acknowledge that it’s not working because of how strictly it’s being enforced.

“All of a sudden it’s not right to wear sneakers with grey or any other colors on it? That is ridiculous,” committee member Samuel Reyes said. “It’s totally, totally wrong, and they have gone overboard.”

But school officials say they don’t think they are going too far in enforcing the rules. They say it’s only a select few who have violated the dress code.

“The reason why we have uniforms is to stress to young people that being in school is different from being out in the neighborhood or hanging out,” Sharkey said. “For us, it’s a different approach to create seriousness. It’s not an unreasonable expectation.”

Mayor Michael Sullivan said dressing properly for school and getting a good education are interrelated.

“It goes hand in hand,” he said. “Education is all about showing up every day to school and learning what happens when you don’t go along with the policy. It’s also training for these young adults when they go to college and go to work.”

There is also an anti gang element, school officials say. Before any dress code was put into place, students wore whatever they wanted. Because of the large population at the school, nonstudents would enter the school without being noticed.

Still, parents and students wonder whether city and school officials are more concerned about the way students look than the education they are receiving.

“Why are they going after little things,
design a polo Tempers flare over Lawrence High School uniforms
when their education is more important?” Veras said. “They are not thinking of the kids and the education they’re missing.”

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