N.J. middle school keeps strapless-dress ban for dance
May 3, 2013
School board officials say preventing wardrobe malfunction is best reason to have dress code.
READINGTON TOWNSHIP, N.J. — Hoping to avoid a digital age wardrobe malfunction, school board officials here decided to keep a middle school principal's controversial strapless-dress ban for next month's eighth-grade dance.
As a compromise, board members said they will allow single-strap gowns and clear spaghetti straps at the June 12 off-campus dinner-dance.
The issue has divided this small Hunterdon County community of 16,000 about 35 miles west of New York City and resulted in the district canceling another dance scheduled April 26 at Readington Middle School after the principal received an emailed threat. Police did not consider the threat credible.
"Kids are fighting among themselves and saying, 'Your mother said this' and 'My mother said that,' " said Angie Gibble, mother of a middle school student who thought the cancellation of Friday's dance at the school, which has an enrollment of about 800, was a passive-aggressive message from administrators to say: "Keep fighting us (and see what happens)."
The board's special meeting Wednesday came a week after more than 50 students and parents packed its previous meeting, mostly to lambaste Principal Sharon Moffat's dress policy, which many parents considered arbitrary and sexist.
One reason the issue became such a hot topic: Some parents said Moffat told them strapless dresses would be too distracting for boys. New York news website Gothamist likened Moffat's reasoning to "slut-shaming," or blaming women for the sexual harassment or assault they experience.
"If we handle the issue of a strapless dress at an eighth-grade dance this poorly, how in the name of God are we making good decisions on a daily basis about the important things?" Gibble said.
Board members Wednesday didn't mention boys. Instead, they cited the reason that Capistrano Valley High School officials in Mission Viejo, Calif., put on their website when they declared the school's winter formal would have a dress code: fear that a strapless gown could fall while students are dancing.
The Southern California school officials suggested sewing on ribbon, clear plastic or spaghetti straps to be in compliance.
Readington Superintendent Barbara Sargent said no such mishap occurred previously, but Moffat, whom Readington hired during the summer, was aware of an incident in her former district.
"It is the board's position that the risk of a wardrobe mishap — either intentional or unintentional — and the possibility of the dissemination of such an occurrence through social media should be mitigated," board member Laura Simon said in a prepared statement. "The distress this may cause any student is not a risk this board is willing to take."
The board was split on whether the principal's rule should stand. A vacancy on the nine-member panel allowed for 4-4 votes on two rounds of voting on dueling policy suggestions. Eventually, the board decided in a 6-2 vote to keep the ban but allow single-strap dresses and clear spaghetti straps.
Two board members changed their vote after the board's youngest member, Vincent Panico, 21, said that when he was in eighth grade a girl he knew in another school district had a gown mishap that was caught on camera, then shared with her peers.
That woman still suffers "physical and emotional scars" from the aftermath of that incident, Panico said.
"A strapless dress ban would have prevented that," he said.
The board also said it would appoint a committee of educators, parents and students to review the policy for the future.
Jim Johnson, a father of two boys in middle school and a daughter in kindergarten, said the media bullied Moffat. Parents and students appeared on Good Morning America and other national news programs; TV cameras came to the board meetings.
Kaitlin May, a 14-year-old eighth-grader who disagreed with the policy, defended her principal as an amazing woman who has handled the controversy "very well and with a lot of grace."
"She should not be having death threats," May said. "Something like that is completely ridiculous. We have so many problems in this country and so many controversies that strapless dresses in little Readington should not cause so much commotion."