Northwestern High's solution to students' saggy pants: lend belts

scetrone@heraldonline.comDecember 11, 2011 

— Northwestern High School leaders have a novel approach for getting teenagers to pull up their pants - lend them belts.

Until now, students caught with pants sagging below their waist could be written up and sent to the principal's office.

Starting this week, instead of a written referral, the school will loan them a belt for the day.

Administrators said they hope it gets students thinking about how they dress.

They also hope the approach cuts down on the number of students referred for discipline.

"We see kids with their britches hanging down all the time," assistant football coach and administrative assistant William Cureton said.

"We want to change the culture."

Cureton, who said he thought of the idea after many discussions with colleagues frustrated by the popular style, even came up with a slogan: "Pull 'em up, and buckle 'em up."

Northwestern's reaction to sagging pants, a style popularized by hip hop artists in the early 1990s, is a tamer approach than many institutions have taken.

Schools and communities across the country have cracked down, some instituting bans citing "public indecency."

The issue has raised legal questions about the right to free expression and drawn accusations of racial profiling.

It's widely believed that sagging originated in prisons, where inmates aren't allowed to wear belts, which could be used as weapons. Adopted by hip hop culture, the style traveled to the suburbs.

While sagging has been popular for two decades, it's made headlines in recent years as politicians have taken hard-line approaches. News reports show towns across the country have instituted bans.

In Jonesville, Ga., the style can be considered "disorderly conduct."

The Fort Worth, Texas, bus system no longer allows riders with low-hanging pants to board.

The village of Lynwood, Ill., the Chicago Tribue reported, has issued some 40 tickets since 2008 under an ordinance banning low-hanging pants.

Rock Hill's three high schools bar pants that hang below the waistline.

"If worn properly, pants, shorts, skirts/skorts should not need to be held in place by the student's hands," the dress code states.

Discipline varies, students and administrators said, from a verbal warning to a written referral to the principal.

"We typically begin with a warning and escalate up the discipline ladder through Saturday detention, in-school suspension and, ultimately, out-of-school suspension for continued violations," South Pointe High Principal Al Leonard said. But "we have few who reach that level."

"I was hoping that this was a fashion fad that would have gone away years ago," Leonard said. "However, it appears as though it has become ingrained in the youth culture.

"The key is for school personnel to be consistent with enforcement and consequences. We have seen a decline in the number of violations this year."

The idea behind the dress code, Northwestern Principal James Blake said, is to prepare students for the future, when the way they present themselves could mean the difference between a job and unemployment.

"It's about marketability," Blake said. Employers "want you to be presentable. That's what we're trying to get them to do."

Blake and Cureton said they're not targeting any particular group of students. They said they see students of different races and ethnicity wear low-hanging baggy jeans and skinny jeans.

When caught sagging, a student will have the option to "check out" a belt for the day. If he doesn't return it or gets caught again, he could be written up.

Blake isn't sure how effective the new program will be.

"We're willing to try anything in order to give the kids an opportunity to do the right thing," he said.

If it doesn't work, "we'll check this one off the list and move on."

Effective or not, it's likely to get people talking, which is what Cureton hopes for.

"It will raise awareness," he said.

Opinions about the new program vary among students.

Junior Joe Johnson said the sagging ban is unfair because students should be allowed to dress the way they want. He doubts that loaning a belt for the day will deter teens, in part, he said, because many students already wear a belt on their sagging pants.

"They'll just have one extra belt," he said.

Junior Mitch Timmons likes the sagging ban.

"If they're down to where you can see your underwear, the rule's fair," he said

Timmons is optimistic about the new program. "If they enforce it strictly, it could be effective," he said.

Freshman Hannah Beavers sees both sides.

"It will help people out because you can get expelled if you get too many referrals," she said. But "it'll probably make some people mad because now they have no excuse."

Shawn Cetrone 803-329-4072

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