Tattoo Coup

A Leander PTA president is forced to resign because of -- aaaiiiggghheee -- piercings!

Tabitha Mitchell
Tabitha Mitchell (Photo By John Anderson)

Tabitha Mitchell jokingly refers to herself as the "volunteer of the world." In addition to serving as children's program director at the Leander public library, president of her homeowner's association, and member of the city's master planning board, she has also been a substitute teacher, room mother, and literacy assistant at Whitestone Elementary School, where her daughter attends second grade. In May, the 25-year-old mom was elected president of Whitestone's Parent Teacher Association, after spending the previous year as parliamentarian.

Mitchell, and her musician husband, moved from Austin to Leander several years ago so that their daughter could obtain one of those highly prized suburban school educations. About her hectic volunteering schedule, she jokes, "I got bored, I guess." Yet her personal style is anything but dull. As PTA prez, she has advocated for swing dances over hoedowns, and with another parent designed a T-shirt showing the Whitestone Wildcat, the school mascot -- sporting a mohawk and earrings. And with an ugly-duckling tattoo covering her upper right arm, a tattooed band encircling her left arm, rings and things dangling from her ears, and a silver stud piercing the skin below her bottom lip, Mitchell looks more like a punk rock version of Marilyn Monroe than someone who answers to "Mommy."

Lately, Mitchell's lip-piercing has caused her some irritation. Two weeks ago, the PTA executive board voted to remove her as PTA president because the LISD's student handbook forbids facial piercings (pierced ears are okay). In addition to passing criminal background checks, LISD school volunteers are obliged to follow the same rules as students. By refusing to remove the piercing while volunteering, Mitchell was technically violating school policy.

In early September, when Principal Lana Collier and LISD Council of PTAs President Karen Powers invited Mitchell to meet, she assumed her colleagues wanted to discuss the upcoming school dance. When she arrived at Whitestone the next morning, however, Powers and Collier informed her that parents had called them to complain about Mitchell's tattoos and piercings.

"You gotta take out [the lip stud], or resign," Mitchell recalls them saying. "'Some parents don't want their kids to be around you' -- parents whose kids I've taught to read." Did she receive any calls? "Not personally." Mitchell was told to write a resignation letter and bring it to the PTA meeting the following Tuesday. When she arrived at the meeting empty-handed, board members asked her to resign. Mitchell refused and walked out. In her absence, the board voted in a new president.

Current PTA parliamentarian Lori Shaw, who regards Mitchell as a friend and "a very good volunteer," says the board had asked Mitchell to stay. "But I'm not sure she heard that because she was upset. They told her, 'If you leave, the other board members will take a vote.'"

Karen Powers declined comment, as did several other PTA board members contacted for this article. Speaking on behalf of Principal Collier, LISD Director of Communications Bill Britcher says that Whitestone received "a large number" of complaints about Mitchell's appearance, including objections expressed at two school meetings. He doesn't doubt Mitchell's energy or concern for children, but last year, when a high school student in LISD tried to keep a tongue piercing, parents supported school rules outlawing such mouth metal.

The PTA's actions do not preclude Mitchell from attending school lunchtime with her daughter, going on class field trips, or attending meetings. Of the lip-piercing issue, however, Britcher says: "We got a very strong reading 18 months ago that this is where our community expects us to be." Parents are concerned about "things that detract from [learning]."

But Mitchell disagrees that her appearance inhibits her performance -- and so, it seems, do the very people who challenged her presidency. A recording of the contentious PTA meeting offers this statement from Powers, who ranks above Mitchell in the PTA hierarchy: "Lana [Collier] praised [Mitchell] up and down. Our concern is the piercings and the tattoos, not that she is not doing her job.

"But we all have to abide by rules," continues Powers. "We can't break the speed limit."

Mitchell has received support from PTA members Shaw, and Jessica and Bryan Roberts, who joined the PTA last month after moving from California with their two children. The couple didn't attend the contentious board meeting but plan to withdraw from the PTA if the Mitchell incident isn't resolved. "Tabitha does two or three times more than what the other board members do," Bryan Roberts asserts. "She doesn't work full time, so I guess it's her job."

Leander Public Library Director Rosemary Detrich, who is unaffiliated with the PTA, says Mitchell has "gone above and beyond the requirements" of her part-time storytelling position, which she's held since 1999. Although Detrich frowns upon employees who wear jeans or shorts to the library, Mitchell isn't required to remove her piercings or cover up her tattoos. "She is very professional in her work, so [her appearance] has never been a factor," Detrich says.

On Sept. 11, an LISD assistant superintendent denied Mitchell's request for an exception to the anti-facial piercing rule and added that she must approach the school board. Mitchell says she has no idea what the board's response will be, but she hopes the meeting will be public so her supporters can attend. "I care enough about this school that I'm not going to give up," she says.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Tabitha Mitchell, Leander, Leander Independent School District, Whitestone Elementary School, Parent Teacher Association, PTA, Lana Collier, Karen Powers, Lori Shaw, Bill Britcher, Bryan Roberts, Rosemary Detrich

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