PROVIDENCE - The state commissioner of education's office is poised to set a hearing sometime within the next month to determine whether the Woonsocket Education Department has violated the constitution with its new uniform policy.
Attorneys from the R.I. American Civil Liberties Union and the Education Department met at a preliminary hearing last week at the Rhode Island Department of Elementary and Secondary Education headquarters in Providence. The hearing was set shortly after attorney John Dineen, representing the ACLU, filed a formal complaint on behalf of four Woonsocket parents fighting the implementation of uniforms, part of the department's School Readiness Policy this year.
Dineen said he firmly believes he can win the appeal before the ACLU delves into the issue of how the statute allowing implementation is unconstitutional.
Dineen told the commissioner's hearing officer, Forrest Avila, Thursday that the ACLU is asking for a ruling on two issues. The first, he said, is in regard to the ACLU's belief that the Education Department did not give parents proper notice about the change in school policy. Dineen told Avila the larger issue has to do with the legislation approved by the General Assembly in 2009, authorizing Woonsocket to impose a school uniform. The General Assembly may pass laws relating to a specific city or town, he said, but that city or town must approve it by a majority vote to implement the statute.
"Woonsocket has not voted on that issue," Dineen said.
Whether the uniforms violate First Amendment law is an issue the ACLU may never need to address, the lawyer added.
The case has brought up several issues, including whether or not the case could be applied to charter schools because they are public and many implement a uniform. But Steven Brown, executive director of the R.I. ACLU, said the organization is not actively pursuing charter schools because it has not received any formal complaints from parents.
After the hearing, Superintendent Robert Gerardi Jr. told reporters that before the uniform policy was implemented, the School Committee performed extensive research on the issue, citing cities like Miami and New York City for taking up similar initiatives in some of their public schools.
"Many courts have upheld these policies across the land," school attorney Richard Ackerman added later. Variances in certain cases similar to Woonsocket's show differences in rulings because of the different ways each policy was written, he said.
Gerardi said he not only believes the Woonsocket policy does not go against students' constitutional rights, but said it will help curb gang violence and social issues that plague the city schools.
The uniform policy goes into effect Sept. 1, but the Woonsocket School Committee has agreed to a 30-day grace period barring students from being penalized for not wearing the uniform.
Avila gave the ACLU attorney 10 days to file a motion for a hearing, and both Dineen and Ackerman have 10 days after the motion is filed to submit concerns and arguments to Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist.
The hearing will be set after the 20-day period.
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