Students at McLoughlin Middle School are learning that civil disobedience comes at a cost. In the past two weeks, four eighth-grade boys have been arrested and charged with misdemeanors for leading protests against the school's dress code. About 20 more students have been suspended.
Parents of those students are wondering whether this tough-love approach has gone too far - the dress code, after all, was implemented to curb bad behavior.
Amy Proffer, whose son, Joey, was among those arrested, said she was upset that the principal allowed police to question her 14-year-old son without calling her.
"I was concerned that the officer was taking a statement from my child," Proffer said. "They told me that they have a right to question him without a parent because he's over the age of 12."
The dress code, dubbed "Mac attire," was implemented at the start of the school year after a parent vote of approval. Proffer voted against it.
Principal Rich Reeves referred reporter calls to Vancouver Public Schools spokeswoman Kris Sork, who said the district stands by Reeves' decision to call the police.
"I don't dare talk about the specific case," Sork said, citing educational privacy laws. "It was investigated by Mike Stromme (director of secondary education), who found that it was all absolutely appropriate."
The frustration over Mac attire took root the afternoon before the lunch protest, at a Fort Vancouver High School track meet.
According to student and police accounts, several eighth-graders were playing in the grass, turning somersaults and using crass language when an assistant principal from their school approached. She told them to knock it off.
The next morning, one of the boys received a letter saying he wouldn't be allowed to partake in any more after-school functions through the end of the school year.
That boy, Sam Ruble, said he nearly started crying. He's a wiry boy with long side bangs and a flair for the dramatic. Sam, 14, said that he was upset because his alternative rock band had been planning to perform after school next month.
The next day at lunch, the boys fumed. They were angry at administrators about their punishment, and that gave way to conversations about the dress code, which they said crimps their style.
By the end of the lunch period, a decision had been made: They would protest the dress code.
"What made us angry at first was barely a protestable issue," Sam said. "But we realized that many people understand the dress code cause, and we decided that we were long overdue for a dress code protest."
They wanted to show off their "randomness," student Desirea Allen said later. They wanted to draw on their jeans and wear the colors of their choice. They acknowledge that they've been able to show off their personalities in spite of the dress code, which allows them to dye their hair any color and write on their shoes.
They believed they would be allowed to protest: Desirea, 13, had checked her student handbook, which states students may express themselves so long as it's "not disruptive to other individuals or to the educational process."
Their ranks grew to about 20 students.
Most involved call their style "emo" or "goth," a look that tends toward black jeans and thick eyeliner.
According to students, Principal Reeves and the assistant principals asked the students to go to their fourth-period classes. They refused.
The conversation between adults and students was light-hearted, the students said, with adults making jokes about the situation.
Sam and Joey said they were surprised when 20 minutes into their impromptu sit-in, Reeves called police.
Vancouver police Officer Julie Carpenter, who is stationed at Fort Vancouver High School, arrived with backup.
Four officers escorted the students into the library and arrested the four boys, who were later released to their parents. They were suspended for the week; 13 other students were suspended for shorter periods, according to the district.
The four boys were referred to the juvenile prosecutor's office on two potential charges:noncompliance with a school official and disruption of school activity. There was no report of violence, perceived or threatened.
"They were protesting the dress code, but the charges don't have to do with the dress code," Vancouver police spokeswoman Kim Kapp said. "It was the disruption of school activities."
So what did the students wish had happened?
"They should have just listened to us," Sam said.
Dress code praised
Days before the protests started, Principal Reeves told school board members that students and teachers are pleased with the results of the dress code.
Kapp said her officers, too, say students are causing fewer problems.
"(Officer Carpenter) did share with me that the number of requests has declined dramatically in her opinion since they instituted the dress code," Kapp said. "She said she has felt that she's responded less to that particular middle school since the dress code went into affect."
The students said discipline issues have decreased because the students who caused problems have moved on to Fort Vancouver, McLoughlin's feeder high school.
They said that the 50-student fight that broke out at Fort Vancouver High School last fall was caused by those same students. That fight led the district to pay $100,000 this year to station Carpenter at the high school full time.
But ultimately, for the students, the issue is more about feeling disrespected than about Mac attire. After all, the students have only one more month to go before summer, when they can wear whatever they want.
Sam said: "Teachers have been calling us the troublemakers. Mac attire was supposed to create unity, but all we've gotten is more trouble because we choose gray and black."
"Yeah," Desirea said. "Just because we're strange doesn't mean we're addicted to drugs."
By ISOLDE RAFTERY, Columbian staff writer
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