If you ask 17-year-old Jassiem Robertson when and why he started sagging his pants down low, he’ll tell you he doesn’t really remember.
“I’ve been sagging since the cradle,” Robertson said, sitting outside Howard School of Academics and Technology, waiting for the bell to ring so he can shimmy his shorts a little lower than teachers will allow. He proudly lifts his shirt to show where he is wearing the waistline that day. Only a little underwear shows.
Maybe it was the rappers on television or the guys who got out of prison and slung their pants low cause they weren’t allowed to wear belts in the pen. Maybe it was because people in his neighborhoods couldn’t afford belts. Maybe it was just style, a way to stick it to the man, he says.
“Some think that saggin’ is swaggin’,” he said.
“It makes you feel like you got money in your pockets,” said Dameion Reynolds, 18, a friend sitting nearby.
But no matter the reason, the style is on the hit list of many teachers, parents, police officers and politicians — black and white — who want the younger generation of men, and some women, to pull their pants up and have tried just about everything to get that to happen.
In Tennessee, state Rep. Joe Towns, a Memphis Democrat, has proposed a ban on school property of clothes that reveal underwear. The bill passed the state House Education Committee last week and is expected to be debated on the House floor this week, Towns said.
Under the legislation, sagging pants, along with exposed sports bras and any clothing considered indecent, would be banned at public schools.
Florida passed a similar ban last year, and students were verbally warned for the first offense. The school contacted the parents for a second offense and gave in-school suspension for a third offense.
Some cities have launched billboard campaigns to curb the sag trend. Others passed controversial criminal bans that imposed fines.
But regardless of the push to pull up, the sag goes on.
Adults hoped the sagging trend would fizzle, but nearly 20 years later it’s still a characteristic of urban youth and what some teens call “the thug life.” Some say its popularity has only increased.
Principal Paul Smith does not allow sagging at Howard. The school’s uniform of khaki pants, button-up shirt and tie was implemented a few years ago for safety reasons, to help school officials distinguish between those who were and weren’t Howard students, Smith said. But it’s also intended to prevent fashion freewheeling.
Boys are constantly told to pull their pants up, and Smith keeps a closet full of clothes and belts that he forces students to wear if need be.
“We don’t tolerate it,” he said of sagging.
But it’s hard to stop it because, at this point, sagging is a style adopted by grownups, too, he said.
“I had a kid come in here for preregistration, and I looked at the kid and he was sagging. Then I looked at his dad behind him, and he was sagging, too,” Smith said.
“Then I looked over and mom was sagging, too. ... What am I supposed to do?”
Last year, Towns sponsored a bill to create a statewide criminal ban on sagging pants. The idea was criticized as being racist, but Towns, who is black, said the issue is decency, not skin color.
Representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union have been outspoken regarding clothing bans in other parts of the country, saying they infringe on freedom of expression.
Even though many schools already enforce dress codes that would keep students from being able to sag their pants at school — in Hamilton County dress codes are decided school by school — Towns said signing it into statewide law would make the fight against sagging a priority.
The bill doesn’t set specific punishments for violations but does require schools to include disciplinary actions in their student code. He said he expects this year’s version, which would go into effect in July, to pass.
“We want to create a professional environment where these kids can learn the proper deportment and conducts ... so they can be promoted to the next level in life,” he said. “There are rules when you go to a professional place that you have to abide by. You are not coming [to school] to rap records. You are coming here to learn.”
When asked if he felt like the law would step on teens’ toes and alienate them from their teachers and administrators, he said those kinds of questions are irrelevant.
“What kids want and what adults want are two different things,” he said. “Kids don’t run the world. Let’s not exacerbate this foolishness. You can’t let kids do what they want to do.”
Educators say the issue of sag is both laughable and serious at the same time.
During his days as principal at Lookout Valley High School, Lee McDade said he never understood the style and took a hard line against it on school property. At one point, he ordered 100 football belts so they’d be on hand just to strap around teens who didn’t get the message.
“When they would bend over, they would show their whole rumpus,” McDade said. “Adult teachers don’t want to see kids’ underwear.”
McDade, now assistant superintendent for Hamilton County Schools, said his former school and others are still fighting the sag.
At Red Bank High School, Principal Gail Chuy said the trend is waning some, partly because of the school’s crackdown. She’s definitely never seen a girl wear only a sports bra during a school athletic practice, she said.
For those still determined to sag their pants, she said a state law won’t change anything. Plus, she said she isn’t sure the problem, which is already being addressed by many schools, should be a legislative priority.
“We have so many issues in this world,” she said. “I don’t know how they can legislate morality.”
On the Howard school yard, Robertson and Reynolds debate the merits of the bill. They admit they aren’t the worst offenders. They just keep a maintenance sag they call “grooven,” over the top half of the butt cheek, and they try to be respectful about it.
When the mall cop tells them to pull them up at the mall, they pull them up. When the police drive behind them on the street and honk for them to yank them up, they yank them up. They do what teachers tell them, too.
They wear gym shorts over their boxers under their extra-large shorts, something a lot of the guys are doing these days.
And they can’t understand the guys who wear their pants super low, showing most of their boxers. How are you supposed to run from a police officer or from a guy trying to fight?
Plus, it’s a pain having to hold the pants up by the front all day. If you’re wearing sagging pants at a store, you practically have to stand in a full wide-split just to hold them up while you use your hands to pay.
Robertson said a law will bring more hassle to young black men. But Reynolds said he thinks it’s about an older generation trying to call the next one to a higher standard.
“I feel like [the bill] is wrong. It’s against our right, our freedom,” said Robertson.
“People want you to better yourself,” said Reynolds.
“It’s my pants that I bought. If I want to sag, I’ll sag,” Robertson retorted.
“They don’t want to see your butt,” said Reynolds.
Then Robertson delivered his final comeback, just before the bell rang.
“Some people ... they can’t afford a belt.”
Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...