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[whitespace] Girl and Thong
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Feeling Strapped: Salinas High senior Jody Lasda says she's fighting for the First Amendment, student privacy and the right to wear thong underwear.

Panty Ranting

Salinas High School students say the new principal's dress code scrutinizes teen girls' apparel down to their underwear and strips them of their First Amendment rights

By Mary Spicuzza

FOR SUCH A TINY ASPECT OF WOMEN'S APPAREL, the thong has certainly stirred up its share of controversies. The diminutive panty, made up of a front panel and a thin back strap, made headlines a few years back when Monica Lewinsky reportedly snapped her thong in hopes of seducing President Clinton. The same lingerie that brought down the president may have the power to unravel the administration of Salinas High School. This school year a group of students protesting Principal Joseph Pawlick's revamped dress code made national news, which focused on their claims that the ambitious new administrator banned thong underwear. Chanting "We Wear Thongs," about 20 protesters carried signs like "Pay attention to my mind, not my panties," and "First Amendment rights do not stop at the school gate--Tinker vs. Des Moines School District."

THE MASSIVE MEDIA flash faded quickly, though, when Dr. Pawlick and Vice Principal Jenny Hirst claimed the thong controversy was based in misunderstanding and teen rumor.

"An investigation by the administration that included direct conversation with involved students indicates that students perpetuated it as a rumor for the media, resulting in picketing by students," Pawlick told Salinas' daily paper, The Californian (Sept. 14, 2000).

It took several weeks of phone calling before any of Salinas High's administrators returned calls from Metro, but in the meantime one school secretary insisted, "Oh, that was just a misinterpretation."

"There really is not much of a story here for you," Hirst said last week. After declining to comment about the school's dress code, Hirst transferred calls to another assistant principal's voice mail.

Senior Jody Lasda, the 17-year-old organizer of the infamous thong protest, says that there are plenty of issues around the school's dress code that warrant protest. Lasda says that the thong controversy is part of a larger problem, which she says includes draconian dress codes, sexism and lack of respect for students' rights.

"The administration is totally trying to intimidate us, but I refuse to back down," Lasda says. "This is about intimidation. And, I think, sexual harassment."

Real Girl Power

JODY LASDA may look like a fashion model, but the fast-talking powerhouse quickly proves that girls are not just meant to be seen, but heard as well. Wearing body glitter, a stylish V-neck top and sleek, shiny jeans, Lasda and her friend, 16-year-old Nancy Jimenez, sit at the Lasdas' dining room table, shuffling through organized stacks of papers documenting her school's dress code woes. She pulls out detailed, typed notes of a meeting with Dr. Pawlick, papers showing discrepancies between the school's official dress code in the student manual and those being enforced by Dr. Pawlick, and copies of fliers circulated among students protesting the new principal's clothing crackdown.

Lasda reaches into her wallet and pulls out a "Fix-It Ticket," which she received last week because a staff member found her skirt inappropriate. The cheery yellow ticket features cowboy boots and a ten-gallon hat, and on the back reads, "Just a Friendly Reminder: You are in violation of the dress code."

"Any adult can issue these tickets," Lasda says. "Last week I got this because one of the women who works at the school didn't like my skirt. I'm not even sure what she didn't like about it."

The administration hasn't released information about whether the school provided training for those adults authorized to hand out the fix-it tickets, either to educate staff about the changing dress code or raise sexual harassment awareness. But Assistant Principal Kandyce Ericson says that dress code violations are often so obvious that they disrupt the classroom.

"It starts with the teacher in the classroom. They are the ones who would send the student if there is a problem," says Ericson, sighting violations like sharp studded bracelets and offensive T-shirts popular with some of the boys.

"I haven't heard of any guys getting tickets," Jimenez, a junior at Salinas High, says.

"Yeah, and a lot of the guys wear their pants hanging down," Lasda adds. "They look like they just rolled out of bed."

Lasda and Jimenez say that while boys may walk around with their boxer shorts showing, at least one girl was given a fix-it ticket for wearing thong underwear. The sense that girls are being scrutinized down to their panties for what they wear, and targeted for code violations, led Lasda and other students to hit the streets in protest. Pawlick sent out a press release denying that the thong incident ever happened. But he called Rochelle Cole, the female student allegedly reprimanded for wearing a thong, to his office right after the protest, along with Lasda and Lindsey Vowell, another student protester. Pawlick told the girls they had been identified from photographs taken during the protest--however, Cole hadn't attended the demonstration.

"He [Pawlick] gave no explanation of how Rochelle Cole had been identified or why she was called down to the office," Lasda's notes from a September 15 meeting with Dr. Pawlick read.

During that meeting the principal did not provide the girls or Sheldon Lasda, Jody's father, with a list of how many students have been reprimanded for code violations, or the ratio of female to male students given fix-it tickets.

Assistant Principal Ericson says that no more than fifteen students have been reprimanded this year, and nobody has been suspended for dress code violations. She adds that none of the administrators has said anything to female students about their underwear.

"I don't know why they came up with making signs like that," Ericson says of the famous thong protest. She says that the school ran out of fix-it tickets and has stopped using them.

"It isn't just about underwear; we are just trying to bring attention to the dress code issue," Jody Lasda says. "But anytime you have high school girls talking about their underwear, it's going to get attention. Probably for the wrong reasons."

Girl and Thong
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Underneath It All: Jody Lasda hopes her election to student government will provide students with a voice in a newer, female-friendly dress code.

Crack Down

Dr. Pawlick started the school year much like any new principal, with a cheery greeting in the student handbook. Under a photograph of him in a shirt and matching tie reads a warm welcome: "My door is always open to students. Stop by anytime to talk about everything that students value."

Besides tightening the dress code, students say he has shortened the period of time between classes and is trying to reduce truancy, which has plagued the 2,200-student high school in recent years.

The previous dress code forbade gang colors due to safety concerns, but Pawlick sent out Cowboy Gram #3 to tighten the code to forbid tank tops and wallet chains, as well as "clothing which disrupts the effective functioning of the school."

Apparently most of the confusion now storming Salinas High stems from the interpretation of which clothing disrupts students' education.

"I was called down to the cafeteria earlier in the school year. Dr. Pawlick stood over me and told me to button my sweater over my tank top," Lasda says. "He told me to keep buttoning, then asked if I would wear 'that' to church. He was hovering."

Lasda and Jimenez say that staff members seem to have different opinions about which clothing interferes with the school's "functioning." This makes it difficult to know what outfits will result in a ticket and subsequent trip to Dr. Pawlick for dress code "coaching."

Attorney Michelle Welsh, chair of the Monterey County Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), says Salinas High's dress code war is only one of several in the South Bay area. Over the last two years, parents of King City public school students have called with complaints about the district's restrictive new uniform policy. In Greenfield, another small southern county, complaints also stem from tight uniform rules.

Still, the even-tempered attorney gets most passionate talking about Salinas High's situation.

"The administrators don't like this issue," Welsh says. "But the education code that governs dress codes says they should be reasonably related to promoting health and safety. I think it is so ridiculous that they would impose such strict standards on these girls. How does this relate to health or safety? This reminds me of Afghanistan, where the women are required to cover themselves."

Assistant Principal Ericson insists that boys as well as girls have been corrected for dress code violations. She says the administration is just doing its job and, like any school, enforcing a code approved by the school board.

But Welsh believes that the new dress code could land Salinas High in legal troubles.

"A dress code has to be clear enough to comply with it. And it could violate statute, if it's not reasonably related to promoting health and safety," Welsh says, adding that litigating such a case would require a student to devote a lot of time and resources.

Moral Court

Administrators from other local school districts were more willing than Salinas High to talk about their dress codes.
Carmen Mahood, an assistant principal who handles guidance issues at Willow Glen High School, says they ask students to use common sense.

"We're very wise. We stay out of direct confrontation, but ask students to dress in a manner that does not cause disruption," Mahood says. "We don't allow midriff exposure, cleavage hanging out, no spaghetti straps, gang colors or 'wife beaters' for the guys. But we are the tightest on gang colors."

Mahood adds that they find some T-shirts inappropriate, citing examples that read, "Hi, I'm a Slut" or "I'm a Pimp."

Salinas seems media-shy, perhaps because it has experienced its share of turmoil recently. Before CNN cameras showed angry young women protesting the dress code, the Salinas Union High School District superintendent, Fernando Elizondo, found himself facing charges of wrongdoing ranging from misuse of district funds and breaching his employment contract to engaging in inappropriate physical contact with minors at a Seaside hotel party. The Californian has reported allegations that Elizondo attended a party several years ago where underage girls performed "lap dances" on partygoers, including the superintendent.

Salinas Police Department Sgt. Roger Milligan says that the case was closed, largely due to lack of cooperation from Elizondo's accusers. "There will be no criminal charges against Mr. Elizondo," Milligan says.

Before Elizondo was hired in late 1996, he served as superintendent of the Mendota School District near Fresno. Elizondo left the post before his contract ended, when the Fresno County Office of Education seized control of the district, which at the time was nearly $600,000 in debt.

Lasda and Jimenez say they are willing to work with Dr. Pawlick and the district superintendent to revamp Salinas High's dress code. They recently ran for Student Site Council and, after a ballot error delayed the process, just found out that they won the election.

"We decided to run because I think it will give us a voice," Lasda says. The girls ran a bilingual campaign and hope to get a more diverse segment of the student body involved in student government.

Yet Ericson says the dress code battles seem to be over.

"Quite frankly, it is so cold now that nobody is wearing bare midriff tops," Ericscon says. "So there really are no dress code problems."

Lasda seems to see things differently. She will soon be featured on Moral Court, a new Warner Brothers television show that promises to have moral conflicts resolved with the assistance of their judge. It promises to be a combination of Politically Incorrect and Judge Judy. The only problem is that Moral Court producers are looking for one or two students who support the dress code, and can't find anyone.

Still, Lasda seems to be the only student willing to lead the charge against her school's administration.

"Jody changed everything at Salinas High; none of this would have started without her," Jimenez says. "We used to just do what we were told."

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From the December 14-20, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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