Every Tennessee school district would have to develop a code of conduct for parents and other school visitors under a bill that narrowly advanced out of a House subcommittee on Tuesday.
The measure aims to tamp down on problems that arise when visitors show up to school wearing inappropriate attire, using inappropriate language, playing loud music, or bringing other unwelcome behaviors on campus.
“We’re telling school districts to come up with a baseline level of behavior for any person who steps on campus,” whether it’s a parent, vendor, or guest, said Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat who is sponsoring the proposal along with Sen. Dolores Gresham, a Republican from Somerville.
“It’s all about contributing to an enhanced or better learning environment,” Parkinson said.
Parkinson has gotten national attention with his so-called “parent dress code” bill, which he filed after getting complaints from parents about sexually suggestive or gang-inspired clothing that other parents were wearing to school.
The bill advanced on a 4-3 vote at a time when some schools and districts in other states are loosening restrictions on hair and dress that disproportionately target students of color.
Several lawmakers who voted against the measure questioned the proposed mandate, especially when school districts already can create a code of conduct for visitors if they see a need.
Rep. Jerry Sexton, a Republican from Bean Station, called the measure “overreach” by state government, and Rep. Ryan Williams, a Republican from Cookeville, agreed.
“I don’t like us telling locals to do something they can do anyway,” Williams said.
Parkinson emphasized the importance of having a process in place so that parents and other visitors understand what is appropriate attire or behaviors when they enter a school building.
The problem “is pervasive because nobody has told people what is expected. What we’re doing is more of an awareness campaign,” Parkinson said.
Rep. Mark White, who chairs the full House Education Committee where the bill is now headed, said he supports the idea.
“When I visit schools, it’s a shame that you have to address this because parents should know better,” White said, citing inappropriate clothing as the biggest problem. “I’ve seen too much of it, and it’s not a pretty sight.”
Rep. David Byrd added that the policy might also cut down on fights at sporting events on school campuses, even as others expressed concern that the proposal could open up school districts to even more problems.
“The reason we don’t have such a code of conduct is because the enforcement is questionable,” said Chuck Cagle, an attorney who represents the state superintendents group.
Tennessee law already requires school districts to develop a code of conduct for students.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include national context.