Alert: Severe shortage of grown-ups

Mona Charen

9/29/2006 12:01:00 AM - Mona Charen

Do you allow your pre-teen daughters to wear T-shirts with suggestive messages? Well, plenty of parents do. Just stroll through any clothing store catering to the younger set, and you will find "Hottie" and "Sexy" on shirts too small to fit anyone older than 12. Bare midriffs are marketed to girls as young as 7 and 8. I don't have daughters; I have sons. But I hate for them to be living in such a coarse society.

The Washington Post recently ran a story about how schools are handling the issue at all grade levels (yes, these kids apparently walk out the door dressed like this). A 14- or 15-year-old girl stared happily into the camera wearing a T-shirt that read, "Behind every great girl is a guy checking her out." Her companion's body-hugging T-shirt read, "Yes, but not with u."

Most middle and high schools have dress codes that forbid plunging necklines, bare bellies, droopy drawers, and T-shirts glorifying drugs and alcohol. But the suggestive T-shirt, according to the Post report, is less clear-cut, falling into "a gray area that requires officials to evaluate one shirt at a time." And apparently, this can be challenging. "Administrators said evaluating the shirts can be awkward because the words are usually printed right over a student's chest. Sometimes students stride quickly past or take other evasive maneuvers to conceal a questionable T-shirt."

Perhaps there's something I'm missing here, but why must the assistant principal catch the kids on the fly in the hall? What are the classroom teachers doing?

"For teenagers who chafe at clothing rules for midriffs and cleavage," the Post explains, "'attitude' shirts offer a chance to show some skin, without showing skin."

Great. Let's hear it for women's liberation. Our 13-year-olds are free to look and act like sluts.

The tentativeness of the adults in this narrative is just amazing. These suggestive messages are in a "gray area." They must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Really? Here are some of the examples offered in the Post story: "Two boys for every girl," "Pimps," "Got (slang expression for breasts)?" "Flirting my way to the top," "I am too hot to handle" and "I know what boys want."

In some instances, school officials demanded that the shirts be turned inside out or exchanged for a school T-shirt. But not in every case. Amazing. Of course, there are occasions, explained Fairfax County, Va., community relations coordinator Paul Regnier, when principals phone a kid's parents about an offensive shirt only to be told that the parents saw no problem.

It isn't that the adults here have no standards. Are we in any doubt about what would happen to a kid who wore a T-shirt that said "Girls can't do math"? It's not that these people are impossible to offend, it's that the wrong things offend them.

Earlier this month, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision upholding the First Amendment rights of a teenager who had worn a "Chicken Hawk in Chief" T-shirt to a Burlington, Vt., middle school. The shirt also implied that George W. Bush was an alcoholic and drug abuser. School officials -- this was Vermont, after all -- instructed the boy to tape over the drug and alcohol images, turn it inside out or cease wearing the shirt. The boy -- this is America, after all -- sued, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union. The Appeals Court held that the school went too far. So now teachers and administrators -- at least in the 2nd Circuit -- will be even less likely to invoke their authority to discipline the messages emblazoned on immature chests.

I know, I know. If parents were doing their jobs, none of this would be a problem. The trashy clothes would hang unsold on the racks, or failing that, would be stopped at the front door before junior or little miss left the house. But parents are abdicating massively. So the only hope is that courts and schools will reassert standards. They can do it in the name of educational environment; they can do it in the name of feminism if that makes them feel better -- but these kids desperately need higher standards of comportment.