Monday, April 23, 2007 | 7:34 a.m.
Zina Wangila woke up Friday morning, pulled on a pair of her favorite jeans and headed off to class at Mojave High School. By 11 a.m. she was on her way back home, having violated the school's dress code.
She had worn blue jeans.
Mojave is one of three high schools, 15 middle schools and 25 elementary schools in the Clark County School District that have adopted dress codes more strict than the district's basic wardrobe guidelines, which ban hats, bare midriffs and skimpy skirts. Principals at an additional 18 campuses want to adopt the tougher guidelines and will find out this week whether the request has been approved by parents.
The more restrictive dress codes, called "standard student attire," allow individual campuses to further limit colors and fabrics. Blue jeans are prohibited at high schools, and shirts must be plain unless they display a campus logo. In addition to any school colors, students must be allowed to wear khaki, navy and white.
Supporters of stricter dress codes say they improve the learning environment, help minimize the sometimes uncomfortable distinctions between wealthier and less well-off children, and make it easier to spot campus trespassers.
Opponents say that there's no proven link between attire and student achievement, and that stricter dress codes are tantamount to uniforms, which have no place in public education.
Stricter dress codes that border on uniforms are becoming more popular among the nation's public schools, led by campuses in California and New York. Districts in Indiana, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Tennessee are weighing uniform policies for the coming school year.
But some districts that were early supporters have since abandoned the initiative, after finding little change in student achievement or behavior.
In 2005 the Clark County School Board began allowing the stricter guidelines - provided that families were surveyed and 55 percent of the returned ballots were in favor of the change. Families must be notified by May 1 for the next school year.
Principal Timothy Stephens of Desert Pines High School in North Las Vegas said he is optimistic he'll win parent support for the stricter guidelines starting next school year.
He said the value of the policy was evident last week when several young men trespassed onto the campus, apparently looking for a student with whom they had a grudge. One of them brandished a gun, and the group was chased off campus by a School Police officer.
The trespassers' clothing helped them to blend in with the students at Desert Pines. But when they jumped the fence and darted through the crowds of uniform-clad pupils at Mountain View Christian Academy next door, Stephens said , he could easily pick them out.
The district tested an early version of its standard student attire policy in 2002 with a pilot study on three Henderson elementary campuses. It was controversial from the outset.
A change in dress code - rattling students and parents - can be mandated by a relative few. Cheyenne High School switched to the stricter dress code after only 473 ballots were returned last spring, with 276 voting "yes" - satisfying the 55 percent approval requirement.
Given that Cheyenne's enrollment tops 2,700, the low threshold needed to change a dress code is a source of frustration to opponents of the clothing policy.
"Their methodology leaves a whole lot to be desired, but the main issue is the constitutional right of free speech," said Allen Lichtenstein, senior attorney for the Nevada ACLU, which two years ago sued to block its implementation.
Oral arguments in the case have been heard by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals , and Lichtenstein said he anticipates a decision in a few months.
"We're optimistic that we'll finally be able to put this to rest," he said.
The ACLU filed the challenge after then-Liberty High School student Kim Jacobs was repeatedly disciplined for wearing T-shirts bearing quotations from the Book of Mormon.
Liberty, the district's first high school to adopt what was then called the "campus wardrobe" policy, requires students to wear khaki bottoms and solid-colored red, white or blue shirts.
Although Jacobs eventually withdrew from Liberty and moved to Northern California to live with her mother, citing the pressure that accompanied her legal battles, five other families and their children joined the ACLU suit.
At Cheyenne, there's been dramatic improvement since the dress code was tightened, principal Jeff Geihs said. Compared with last year, suspensions, referrals to the dean and required parent conferences have dropped by about 40 percent, he said.
"You can't argue with the numbers," Geihs said.
On Friday a number of his students agreed that the school's overall atmosphere is calmer than in previous years and fights are now uncommon. Senior Vanessa Aguirre credited Geihs, who is in his second year at the helm and has cracked down on absenteeism and tardiness - sometimes by locking late students out of the classroom.
Cheyenne junior Nadia Medellin said she can see both sides of the dress code debate.
"In a way it's good because you get ready for school sooner because you don't have to think about what to wear," Medellin said . "In a way it's bad, because you can't be yourself."
At Spring Valley High School, the standard student clothing policy is just one element in improving student achievement. Principal Bob Gerye pointed to his school's commitment to smaller learning communities and a comprehensive mentoring program.
"We've seen a decrease in aberrant behavior , but do you hang that (exclusively) on the dress code?" Gerye asked.
The stricter dress code at Mojave High School didn't go far enough, principal Charity Varnado said. She plans to conduct a new survey in two years, the earliest allowed under district regulation, and ask parents to support stricter limits.
Currently Mojave students may wear khaki pants and collared shirts of any solid color. She wants to limit the options to the school colors of orange and green, along with the district regulation's required choices of khaki, navy and white.
"I'd like to make it easier for our staff to tell who isn't in compliance," Varnado said. "Our teachers are so focused on academics, a student may slip by without being noticed."