School Dress Codes Need to be Clear and Fair to Ensure Equal Enforcement

A few months ago, my daughter and her friends came home on a Friday afternoon furious about a recent lecture on dress code. While I’m certain her teaching team had the students’ best interests at heart, the girls heard a different message: Their bodies are distractions that must be managed.

schools should enforce equity and avoid bias in their dress codesHer school is not alone. From leggings on airliner flights to conversations about reporters’ hairstyles, stories about dress keep making headlines and almost always put women’s bodies in the spotlight. Dress codes, often applied most rigidly in middle and high school, have long lived at the stressful conjunction of school safety and student freedom of expression. Critics of dress codes say uneven enforcement and a focus on covering up mean that dress codes are sexist. Schools cite the need to manage a broad cross-section of students and worry when dress distracts from learning.

Courts have consistently upheld a school’s right to establish a dress code if it is in the best interest of learning and student safety. Still, schools must address challenges inherent to dress code design and enforcement.

Dress codes must be clear

Some schools have uniforms or extraordinarily restrictive dress codes (e.g., polo shirts and khaki pants). While enforcement down to the belt color is too much for some families, there is something to be said for the clarity of a restrictive dress code. After my daughter’s lecture, we examined the school/district dress code and realized many of the rules are largely open to interpretation.

Ambiguity is unfortunate because it requires teachers and administrators to clarify and apply the dress code. If a school’s administration, staff and teachers are unclear on the precise expectations of the code, enforcement can appear potentially biased, sexist and random.

Dress codes don’t have to be complicated. In her article “Your Dress Code Is a Bully,” author Lauren Bromburg says simpler rules are the best solution. While her suggestions are very good, it is also important to note that even simple dress codes require staff training and conversations about enforcement to ensure the rules are enforced equally for all students.

Dress codes must not be sexist

Unequal dress code rules and enforcement are counterproductive if they reinforce the notion that girls’ bodies are a distraction. Social media is rife with images of beautifully dressed girls who were “dress-coded” for showing too much knee or collarbone. Young men almost never face these accusations.

Heavy enforcement that targets young women and carries a message of modesty reflects judgment of and bias against women’s bodies. Codes should not exempt young men from the requirements of self-control and respectful behavior or open a door to harassment by teaching young men to focus on skirt length or strap width rather than social studies and math.

Because dress codes often presume the binary nature of students and middle-class experience and values, they can create unfortunate expectations for non-binary students or students in poverty. Nobody wants stinky middle-schoolers, but a common entry in dress codes is that students must be reasonably clean and groomed with clothing in good condition. This can pose a challenge to students of low socioeconomic status or in unstable homes. And the fear of being “dress-coded” can interfere with, rather than enhance, a school’s ability to serve this student.

This also holds true for transgender or nonbinary students if their dress code has gender-specific language, forcing them into dressing habits that are contrary to their nature.

An alternative

Dress codes don’t have to be top-down edicts. Schools can use dress codes to encourage students to take responsibility for their own learning. Shifting the conversation from the dress code’s focus on distraction to individual responsibility and good student behavior and habits helps bypass the minefield of sexism, modesty and judgment.

It also helps to garner student buy-in and develop regulations that give students a voice. Such work can ensure that a school’s dress code policy isn’t about teachers and administrators controlling the behavior of students, but about helping schools find best practices for learning.

When everyone returned to my daughter’s middle school the following Monday, their anger was palpable. The school responded by allowing classes to share their anger and frustration while working to harness students’ own experiences and opinions in the development of a more student-friendly conversation.

This shift from top-down management toward a culture of responsibility is a great choice. I hope they stay on this path.

Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.

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