Fashion Nazis in Gwinnett!

January 8, 2007




J. Alvin Wilbanks, Superintendent

Gwinnet County Public Schools

437 Old Peachtree RD NW

Suwanee, GA  30024-2978


Dear Superintendent Wilbanks:


     Six months have not passed since our General Counsel last wrote you about the apparent discriminatory treatment of a black male teacher at Chavez High.  Now I write you about the apparent discriminatory treatment of another teacher in Gwinnett County, this time a black female at Gleason Elementary, Ms. Jolanda Salome.  Ms. Salome has shared with me very disturbing commentary about her alleged treatment by Gleason’s administrative team.  It would appear that, although the student population at the school has undergone a transition to approximately ninety percent black, the largely white administrative team has yet to grasp that change has occurred and still apparently operates as if Gwinnett County and, hence, Gleason Elementary, have made no such transition.  The year is 2007, not 1960.  Integration has occurred, and the times, they have a-changed.  Modern American sensibilities, by and large, have adjusted well to the new racial mix in politics, culture, and even education.  Sadly, it seems that Gleason’s administrative team, led by Principal Glen Denning, continues to operate from an exclusionary mindset, especially when it involves Ms. Salome.  Although she has received satisfactory marks for her teaching ability and for her extracurricular engagement with the students, Principal Denning and his administrators have apparently focused on her attire, a matter that should be of slight consequence in the grand scheme of things but that has apparently acquired greater significance considering the manner in which Gleason’s administration has apparently targeted it.


     Let me encapsulate what Ms. Salome has related to me.  On October 13, 2006, a student appeared at Ms. Salome’s door with a note from Assistant Principal Ridgeway requesting Ms. Salome’s attendance at a meeting with Principal Denning.  During the meeting, Ms. Salome was told that her “personal attire” was offensive to some of the other staff members at Gleason.  According to Ms. Salome, most of the other staff members had not even greeted her since she started teaching at Gleason; therefore, she thought and still thinks that for them to complain about her “personal attire” to her supervisors prior to mentioning anything to her is inappropriate.  In fact, Ms. Salome says that she does not agree with some of the other staff members’ “personal attire,” but that, since it is her personal opinion, she has kept her thoughts to herself.  She did, however, after that meeting, write the following statement to Principal Denning and Assistant Principal Ridgeway:  “The Core Essential for the month is individuality, which simply means that we are all different, and it’s OK to be different because if we all looked the same and behaved the same there wouldn’t be any progression.  I am different and I love having my own identity which makes me the great woman I am today.  I have never worn a mini-skirt or skirt that shows my legs in an inappropriate way, even with my boots.  If my attire needs to be changed in any way, then I feel that the entire school’s attire needs to be changed.  I don’t think that slippers, shorts or hats (visors) are appropriate; however staff members wear them.”  Clearly, Ms. Salome possesses a mature outlook on the matter.  She has self-assurance and comprehends the notion of appropriateness of clothing in a professional setting.  She notes that one’s personal opinion is simply that, one’s personal opinion, and she has refrained from trying to enforce hers on her peers.  That, of course, has apparently not been reciprocated, and I am concerned about this alleged snitching on her by her peers.  That Principal Denning and Assistant Principal Ridgeway would apparently place so much stock in what the unnamed other staff members snitch about Ms. Salome’s “personal attire” bothers me.  Do these unnamed other staff members have greater sway over the principal than does Ms. Salome?  It would appear that they do, and why do they?  Is it because of their race?  Plus, why would these unnamed other staff members feel compelled to run to the principal and complain about their personal opinion concerning Ms. Salome’s “personal attire” and not go to the source with their personal opinion?  It causes me, logically, to conclude that these unnamed other staff members really do not like the black woman inside the clothes, not the clothes themselves.


     Assistant Principal Ridgeway, on October 16, 2006, replied to Ms. Salome’s response to the meeting, writing:  “Thank you for sharing your thoughts concerning our meeting.  We are positive that you make every effort to dress professionally each day.  I wanted to follow up on one item in your email.  Staff members may wear hats or visors on the playground during recess or on special event days such as Field Day.  Our staff will not be wearing hats in the building.  Staff members may wear head coverings such as scarfs [sic].  The handbook is being updated to make this clarification.  If you notice a dress code violation, you can bring it Dr. Denning’s attention [sic].”  I find it amazing that, considering the importance of instructing children in schools, that such weight would be placed on the “wearing [of] hats in the building.”  Surely, it would be much more productive to spend time tweaking instructional delivery models rather than the teacher handbook about the faculty’s ability to wear “hats in the building.”  Also, the second sentence bothers me in that it can be read as having a double meaning.  It could mean that the administration at Gleason understands that Ms. Salome dresses “professionally each day” even though the administration felt obliged to discuss with her the fact that unnamed other staff members had complained about her “personal attire.”  The implication is that Ms. Salome should not be worried about that meeting on October 13, 2006, and that is the notion that she took from Assistant Principal Ridgeway’s sentence.  The sentence could, on the other hand, be an admonition that Ms. Salome should heed what was said to her in that meeting about her “personal attire” and dress differently so that the unnamed other staff members would not be further offended by Ms. Salome’s clothes.  As you will see, the latter meaning was intended.


     Eight days later, Ms. Salome received another e-mail from Assistant Principal Ridgeway, who wrote:  “On October 23, you wore a skirt that does not abide by dress code standards.  Please refrain from wearing skirts with high slits.  Several staff members and students contacted the Adm. Team concerning the attire.  The Adm. Team is in agreement that the skirt violated the dress code.”  I cannot believe that Gleason’s administration would engage in this kind of behavior, namely, allowing unnamed other staff members to affect the administration’s treatment of a teacher whom the unnamed other staff members have apparently decided dresses in a manner that they dislike.  What about staff camaraderie?  This transpired in October.  The school year ends in May.  Does the Gleason administration actually think it acceptable for Ms. Salome to have to endure nearly six months of treading on egg shells so as to keep the unnamed other staff members happy?  This creates a hostile working environment for Ms. Salome, and she should not have to be expected to endure such covert scrutiny from colleagues who apparently have neither the courage nor the class to interact with her one-on-one about their perceived problem with her “personal attire.”  And, perhaps I just am out of touch with what happens in elementary schools in Georgia in 2007, but when did elementary school students earn the right to be able to “contact” an elementary school’s “Adm. Team concerning the attire” of an adult employee at an elementary school?  Frankly, I cannot believe that an elementary school student would find anything objectionable about any staff member’s “personal attire,” that is, of course, unless unnamed other staff members possibly put them up to contacting the “Adm. Team.”  If such is the case, and it very well might, those unnamed other staff members should have charges brought against them with the Professional Standards Commission.  With that in mind, I formally request that you instigate a formal investigation of what occurred with the unnamed students.  They should never be empowered to make complaints about their personal feelings about a teacher’s “personal attire.”  How could they possibly be in any position to make such personal feelings as to the appropriateness of an adult’s “personal attire” other than to say it is “pretty” or “ugly”?  I believe that if students did make complaints, they were merely parroting what they overheard the unnamed other staff members say.


     Upon receipt of the e-mail from Assistant Principal Ridgeway, Ms. Salome went to her and lodged an informal complain that she believed that Assistant Principal Ridgeway was “picking on” her.  Ms. Salome shared that many co-workers at Gleason wear skirts that are very short, some the height of the split in the skirt the administration found improper that Ms. Salome had worn.  Assistant Principal Ridgeway, according to Ms. Salome, declined to judge the other staff members’ skirts, but insisted that Ms. Salome’s was inappropriate.  Ms. Salome then requested a grievance form, but was told that she would have to obtain one from Principal Denning whom she then went to see.  He told Ms. Salome that he had seen her skirt and found it to be very short, and she says that she restated her belief that she was being “picked on.”  In order to arrive at a better understanding of what he found appropriate in her attire, she inquired whether the sweat suit she was wearing at the time was okay.  He said that he found it to be okay, but that she would have to speak with Assistant Principal Ridgeway, the “ladies AP,” for the final word.  Ms. Salome returned to the “ladies AP” who said that the sweat suit was inappropriate.  This caused Ms. Salome to burst into tears because just the previous day, Assistant Principal Sparks had mentioned that “nice” sweat suits would be acceptable.  Ms. Salome reiterated that she felt “picked on” and that the “ladies AP,” Assistant Principal Ridgeway, with whom Ms. Salome was speaking, had never spoken positively with her.  Not only do I find the insistent, apparently negative dialogue between Ms. Salome and Assistant Principal Ridgeway calculated and callous, but I also find Principal Denning’s abdication of authority in the matter of Ms. Salome’s “personal attire” troubling.  How is it that the building level supervisor would consider Ms. Salome’s sweat suit acceptable and tell her so, but allow an underling to negate his opinion?  Why is Principal Denning in charge of that school?  Why is he even there?  It would appear that Assistant Principal Ridgeway holds sway, so why pay Principal Denning just to occupy space?


     Does Principal Denning earn his pay as Assistant Principal Ridgeway’s enforcer?  He certainly can write a mean-spirited e-mail.  Consider this one, referenced “Maintaining Excellence,” that he sent on December 16, 2006, to Gleason’s staff:  “Any organization, large or small, is going to have employees who make bad choices or who exercise poor judgment (of course, I’m not referring to the occasional small mistakes we all make from time to time).  Bad choices and poor judgment are not well-received by fellow employees who are giving 100% of their time and effort in trying to maintain a healthy and productive environment for quality work and student learning.  Please know that when employees make bad choices in their behavior or exercise poor judgment, it is not ignored by the administrative team.  Such incidents are documented and corrective actions are taken.  Corrective actions are confidential, so it may not be readily apparent that anything is being done, but please trust that things are being done when inappropriate actions occur.  Gleason has a tradition of excellence, and you can rest assured that the administrative team will always work diligently to preserve our tradition of excellence.  To all those I referred to above who give 100% in maintaining a healthy and productive environment, thank you for your continued efforts in preserving excellence at Gleason.”  What this implies is that the unnamed other staff members who have been complaining about Ms. Salome’s “personal attire” to the administration have intensified their complaints.  Apparently, no longer content to be told on the sly by Gleason’s administration that the object of their snitching, Ms. Salome, has been called to the office and chastised, they apparently seek a public demonstration of their power.  It would seem that Principal Denning’s e-mail serves this purpose.  He borders on abject apology for not being able to be more overt with his handling of those “employees who make bad choices or who exercise poor judgment[.]”  All he can do, since confidentiality in personnel matters exists, is reassure the snitches:  “Please know that when employees make bad choices in their behavior or exercise poor judgment, it is not ignored by the administrative team.  Such incidents are documented and corrective actions are taken.”  Two days later, he placed Ms. Salome on a Professional Development Plan (PDP) ostensibly because of her “personal attire.”


     Principal Denning had Ms. Salome called into a meeting on December 18, 2006, in which three females other than Ms. Salome were also present.  He inquired as to Ms. Salome’s plans for next year, and, upon hearing of her intention to return to Gleason, he told Ms. Salome, as she has related to me, that she should “find another place to work” because Gleason is “not the place” for her.  Ms. Salome states:  “Robert [Denning] stated that Gleason and Gwinnett are conservative places and that I do not fit in.  I was then given a PDP and told to read it.”  This PDP, marked as a “Required Plan for Specific Needs Development,” lists two “Specific Objectives for Improvement.”  Ms. Salome immediately objected to the first objective, “Works cooperatively with school administrators, special support personnel, colleagues, and parents.”  She assures me that she does work cooperatively within the school and that only one specific instance of a problem with a student and his mother was used for justification of the inclusion of this objective on the PDP.  Ms. Salome writes:  “I was told that a teacher saw me reprimanding a student and waving my finger in the child’s face and being very rude to the child.  I was also told that Gleason is not the best place for me and that I am not following directions.  I was accused of doing what I want to do.  I was also accused of displaying negative behavior to the staff and that others are no longer interested in working at a school where I am a part of.  Other staff members do not want that type of reputation, teachers who have been here for over 20 years.  I was accused of displaying a negative attitude and that my words may come out in a rude or inappropriate manner.”  What I discern from Ms. Salome’s commentary about the PDP conference, other than the patent reliance on hearsay from unnamed other staff members apparently too cowardly to approach Ms. Salome in a collegial manner to share their concerns about her by Gleason’s administrative team for justification of Ms. Salome’s placement on the PDP, is that she has been targeted by older female employees as being too vibrant, too youthful for their tastes.  Perhaps these older veterans of the school have become too calcified in their routine to understand that younger colleagues have a vitality that has not been sapped by years of engaging in the same old thing day in and day out.  Plus, I would guess that a certain amount of feminine jealousy accounts for these aged staff members’ complaints about Ms. Salome’s “personal attire” and professional demeanor.  (The second objective deals with Ms. Salome’s “personal attire” – “Dress in a professional manner that is appropriate for the local school environment.”)  How else can you explain the intense emphasis on Ms. Salome’s clothing?


     It is the commentary in “Activities and Time Line” that is very informative about the actual nature of the complaint against Ms. Salome.  For the first objective, Principal Denning writes, “Display a positive attitude about J.K. [sic] Gleason Elementary School through your words, tone of voice, and your body language.”  Is there a rubric that Ms. Salome should follow?  One was not provided on the PDP.  Does some machine exist that will assist her in affecting “a positive attitude” via “words, tone of voice, body language”?  That machine was not indicated on the PDP.  Is there some device by which Gleason’s administrators will be able to gauge Ms. Salome’s “display”?  There is no mention of any such device on the PDP.  Principal Denning does, however, indicate the “Criteria for Measurement of Progress” on the PDP:  “Compliance with the Objectives and Activities listed above will be monitored on an ongoing basis by the administrative team.”  Who will be the final arbiter of these attributes of Ms. Salome’s being?  An older white man who has shown his penchant for derogation of Ms. Salome based on the complaints of unnamed staff members who are apparently so enamored of their own sense of self-worth that they would not deign approach Ms. Salome, their colleague, with helpful, professional hints that would have made her employment at Gleason meaningful and less stressful?


     I would hope not, especially considering what he writes in “Activities and Time Line” for that second objective dealing with Ms. Salome’s clothing.  He writes:  “Wear appropriate and professional attire at all times.  As referenced in the October 24, 2006 [sic] Weekly Update, professional attire needs to conform with Standard 10:  Professional Conduct from The Code of Ethics for Educators from the Georgia Processional [sic] Standards Commission.  Standard 10 reads as follows:  Professional Conduct – An educator should demonstrate conduct that follows generally recognized professional standards.  Unethical conduct is any conduct that impairs the certificate holder’s ability to function professionally in his or her employment position or a pattern of behavior or conduct that is detrimental to the health, welfare, discipline, or morals of students.  Clothing that does not cover cleavage or reveals too much of one’s legs, or is too tight is a distraction to students, parents, and fellow staff members and thus ‘impairs the certificate holder’s ability to function professionally . . . and is detrimental to the welfare of students.’ [sic]”  I find Principal Denning’s lack of quotation marks telling.  It would seem that he wants it to read as if Standard 10 of the Professional Standards Commission’s Code of Ethics includes the remarks about clothing, but the Code does not.  I cannot believe that a professional educator would even pen something as sexist as this.  The Middle Ages ended around five hundred years ago, and items such as chastity belts have long fallen into disuse.  Gleason is an elementary school, not a convent.  Ms. Salome does not wear clothing that allows her breasts to hang out for all to see; however, her clothing does not reach up to her collarbone either.  I have encountered a number of women who, because of nature’s blessing, are possessed of amply-sized breasts which, even if constrained by a brassiere and covered up to the neck with a blouse, still protrude.  And, just how “much of one’s legs” is too “much” to reveal?  Might a woman’s ankles show?  Perhaps the Gwinnett administration would be more comfortable mandating that its female staff members wear burkas that cover their bodies from head to toe just as the mullahs of the Taliban used to force the women of Afghanistan to do.         


     Gwinnett County, of course, is not Afghanistan, and Principal Denning is merely an elementary school principal as well as a mere man who, it would appear, is concentrating too intently on Ms. Salome’s breasts and legs.  For instance, in the first meeting that Principal Denning held with Ms. Salome about her colleagues’ complaints about her “personal attire,” she writes that he “stated that he thinks that I look nice and that other staff members are jealous of the way that I dress and that if the school had a contest I would win first prize.”  She continues:  “He also mentioned that people are assuming that I make more money or that he (the principal) may be giving me more money because of the nice clothing that I wear.”  Apparently, Principal Denning knew what the problem was at the very onset.  The older female staff members are apparently envious of Ms. Salome’s looks and, because of this envy, went on the attack.  By allegedly accusing Principal Denning of giving Ms. Salome more money to buy her stylish clothes, these unnamed other staff members were evidently implying some sort of sexual connection between him and Ms. Salome.


     In that meeting, Ms. Salome inquired of Assistant Principal Ridgeway, after Principal Salome had made his comments, as to what she thought would be appropriate clothing to wear.  Assistant Principal Ridgeway suggested that Ms. Salome wear something like she, Assistant Principal Ridgeway, was wearing – khaki pants with an over-sized blouse.  Upon hearing this suggestion, Ms. Salome replied that she is “not a khaki or overall type of girl” and that she does not own “clothing like that.”  Assistant Principal Ridgeway asked why Ms. Salome would wear “nice clothes to work with children.”  Ms. Salome says that she explained that “these are the clothes that I own and that these clothes are considered professional to me and that I never had a problem with my clothing before during my seven years of teaching.”  It seemed obvious to Ms. Salome that these administrators were disrespecting her cultural background based on her clothing.  All the emphasis on making her dress like the white teachers indicated to her and indicates to me that the white administrators at Gleason were unwilling to recognize Ms. Salome’s diversity.  In fact, Ms. Salome told me that Principal Denning made an incendiary statement that apparently betrays his feelings about diversity.  She says that at a faculty meeting he stated that “due to the high number of free lunches [at Gleason this school year], generally our test scores are going to go down.”  If this is the case, it seems logical to understand that Principal Denning was referring to the increased number of non-white students at the school this year, and his alleged comment about “free lunch” implies that he possesses the opinion that non-whites will not do as well on tests as whites, thus implying that non-whites are not as intelligent as whites.  Why would Principal Denning feel comfortable enough to make such a statement – if he did indeed make this statement –  to a staff that includes educated black adults teaching at a predominantly minority school? 


     On December 18, 2006, after being called into the meeting to sign the PDP, Ms. Salome called ADA/Equity Compliance Coordinator Linda Waters to share what had been happening at Gleason.  Coordinator Waters’ response was, “What do you want me to do?”  Ms. Salome explained that she had called because, after obtaining the info from the Gwinnett County Schools Handbook, she saw mention that, if an employee feels as if he/she has been harassed, that employee should call Coordinator Waters who replied that she understood what the Handbook said and asked Ms. Salome again, “What do you want me to do?”  They discussed whether Coordinator Waters should call Principal Denning before or after the holidays and whether Ms. Salome had spoken with Principal Denning prior to contacting Coordinator Waters who, apparently to conclude the conversation, told Ms. Salome that she was required to sign the PDP and that, if “things did not work out at Gleason,” then Ms. Salome would be unable to work at any other school in Gwinnett.  Of what assistance was this to Ms. Salome?  She felt that Coordinator Waters was unhelpful and seemed to be on the side of Gleason’s administration.  Ms Salome wrote to me:  “The website mentioned to call immediately and that an investigation will be conducted immediately; however, nothing of that nature was ever mentioned to me.”  Why would the Gwinnett School System have this proviso on its website for employees to believe that assistance would be forthcoming in a harassment case?  Is it just window dressing so as to comply with federal laws without really intending to do a thing about harassment of employees by administrators?  Ms. Salome tells me that a meeting was held among Principal Denning, Coordinator Waters, and herself in which Ms. Salome’s complaints were aired.  In that meeting, according to Ms. Salome, Principal Denning made the comment that Ms. Salome was dressed as if she had just had sex with someone.  Ms. Salome says that Coordinator Waters, a woman, appeared to find nothing inappropriate or unprofessional with what Principal Denning said.  I, however, do, and this letter serves to alert you to my disgust at Principal Denning and his administrative team’s apparently blatant harassment of Ms. Salome because of her race and at your Central Office administrators apparently intentional decision to ignore Ms. Salome’s properly filed complaint.        


     I encourage you to rescind Ms. Salome’s PDP and to have Principal Denning offer her a formal apology as well as reassurance that she will no longer be subjected to harassment because of her culture.  I have seen the “personal attire” that Ms. Salome wears to school and have found it quite acceptable for a professional setting.  Instead of vilifying her for her fashion sense, Gleason’s administration should celebrate her vibrancy, thus the diversity at the school.  During this time of celebration in recognition of the great gains in racial equality made through the exertions of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it seems completely appropriate that the Gwinnett County School System make a very clear statement that it does indeed value diversity.  Otherwise, this is just another example of how the Gwinnett County School System continues to lag far behind other more enlightened school systems in their embrace of all races and cultures.  The population shift in Gwinnett cannot be ignored, even in insular institutions like Gleason Elementary where, apparently, the white administrators who used to hold sway over white children have yet to grasp that the white children are no longer predominant there and that new methods of discourse must be developed so that an alleged incident like this involving Ms. Salome will not recur.  






                                                                        John R. A. Trotter, Ed.D.,J.D.


Copy:  Ms. Jolanda Salome, Teacher

           Mr. J. Anderson Ramay, Jr., Esq.

           Gwinnett County Branch of NAACP, Unit #566

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