Equity & Diversity

Districts Need Guidance on Designing Dress Codes That Are Fair to All. It Might Be On the Way

By Eesha Pendharkar — October 28, 2022 6 min read
An Alameda High School student poses for photos wearing ripped jeans on the school's campus in Alameda, Calif., Thursday, Aug. 23, 2018. The relaxed new dress code at public schools in the small city of Alameda, across the bay from San Francisco, is intentionally specific: Midriff-baring shirts are acceptable attire, so are tank tops with spaghetti straps and other once-banned items like micro-mini skirts and short shorts.
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A federal watchdog agency is calling on the U.S. Department of Education to provide resources that help schools build equitable dress codes, and collect data on how fairly they’re being enforced.

But while these guidelines offer a good starting point for districts that have none right now, experts say changing school dress codes is often a broader, much more comprehensive undertaking.

In a report released earlier this week, the Government Accountabily Office concludes that school district dress codes typically unfairly target students of color, LGBTQ students, and girls. They are often more strictly enforced in predominantly Black and Hispanic districts, in contrast with predominantly white districts, which puts students of color on a path of out-of-school punishments and missed learning opportunities.

Nearly 44 percent of districts in the GAO report might be enforcing dress codes by asking students who are in violation of the code to leave the classroom, the report found. This “informal removal” is not documented as a suspension, and hence not recorded as student discipline.

“Without information on the full range of ways children are disciplined—including informal removals and non-exclusionary discipline—[the Education Department’s] efforts to provide resources on the equitable enforcement of discipline will have critical gaps,” the report says.

To make dress codes equitable, the department should put into place a few guidance tools on designing dress codes and collect data on informal removals at the federal level, according to the GAO report.

These recommendations are based on how much power the department has to dictate dress code policy.

Since 24 states and the District of Columbia allow districts to design their own dress codes, there’s not much more at the federal level that the Education Department can do to force districts to overhaul their dress codes, according to the report and Jacqueline Nowicki, the director of GAO’s education, workforce, and income security team.

“As with much of K-12 education, the locus of power and the decisionmaking is really at the state and local level. So the federal government doesn’t have the authority to direct a state or a district to overhaul its dress code policies,” Nowicki said. “What they can do is provide resources and technical assistance and help for districts and states who choose to undertake that kind of effort.”

The Education Department responds

The GAO’s recommendations urge the secretary of education to “provide resources to help districts and schools design equitable dress codes to promote a supportive and inclusive learning environment.”

It says these resources should “include dress code information in existing resources on safe and supportive schools,” with examples of model dress code policies that protect students without unfairly targeting particular groups of students.

While the GAO did not provide a model policy to the Education Department in its report, it pointed out some factors that make dress codes less safe for students.

“For example, many dress codes would require an adult to measure clothing or what have you on a student’s body. So now you have adults touching kids when that’s probably not necessary,” Nowicki said. “You can design a dress code that sort of gets the point across and doesn’t require adults touching kids.”

The recommendations also advise the secretary to provide information for districts on equitable enforcement of dress codes that includes “information that helps states, school districts, and schools address potential disparities and disproportionality in dress code enforcement.”

The watchdog agency also calls on the department to collect information on the “prevalence and effects of informal removals and non-exclusionary discipline and disseminate this information to states, school districts, and schools.”

In its response, the department said it accepted most of the recommendations and agreed to plan to provide recommended sources for districts.

But the Education Department stopped short of pledging to collect data on the effects of informal removals of students for classrooms. The department said that while it was considering collecting data on informal removals in its next Civil Rights Data Collection process, for the 2025-26 school year, it does not have mechanisms for collecting information on the effects of these practices, according to Nowicki.

Districts must collect their own data to change dress codes

The department recommendations are a good start, but federal data collection won’t really provide an incentive for districts and school boards to change dress code policies, said Alyssa Pavlakis, a school administrator from Illinois who has studied school dress codes.

“I don’t think that a recommendation is going to cause all schools with dress codes that have issues to change the way that they are operating,” she said. “There needs to be an accountability piece if people are actually going to change.”

Pavlakis got into researching dress codes after hearing from her students—mostly her Black female students—that the school dress code felt racist and discriminatory.

“They couldn’t get away with wearing the same things that, for example, that white girls could get away with wearing,” she said the students told her. “Not only did we find that our dress codes sexualized Black girls, but they criminalized Black boys. And so I actually brought that research to my school.”

Pavlakis said she was able to make changes in part because her school system was a one-high-school district.

“What got it moving for us was the fact that we had student voices; our students voiced that there was a problem. And then we had somebody who was able to collect data.” she said.

“This data is great, that’s collected at the national level,” Pavlakis added, referencing the GAO report. “But in order for schools to see the issues within their own walls, they need to have their own data.”

District dress codes should avoid discriminating based on sex, gender

More than 18 percent of the more than 22,000 LGBTQ students who participated in GLSEN’s National School Climate Survey for the 2020-21 school year said they had been prevented from wearing clothes deemed “inappropriate” based on their gender. For example, a student was prevented from wearing a dress because they are a boy, or because staff think they are a boy.

School dress codes can also marginalize transgender, gender nonconforming, and nonbinary students by requiring gendered attire for special events, according to the biennial survey by the LGBTQ advocacy organization.

More than 26 percent of LGBTQ students said that their school required gendered attire for graduation, such as different-colored graduation robes for boys and girls. More than a fourth reported gendered attire for official school photographs, for example, boys having to wear tuxedos and girls having to wear dresses for senior portraits.

“While a public school can require ‘formal attire’ to be worn at special events, it may not require that girls, and only girls, wear gowns—or that boys, and only boys, wear a suit,” an American Civil Liberties Union guidance document about dress codes says.

In the GAO survey, 15 percent of district dress codes outline gendered rules for clothing, accessories, or hairstyles, such as stating that “no fingernail polish or makeup is allowed on male students.” None of the 236 dress codes the report reviewed explicitly protected transgender or nonbinary students’ right to dress according to their gender identity.

Dress codes that require gendered clothing may be considered to be in violation of federal anti-discrimination laws, according to the ACLU document.

“Schools cannot force students to conform their appearance or behavior based on rigid and discriminatory gender norms and stereotypes,” the ACLU guidelines say. “Such dress codes marginalize nonbinary, transgender, and gender-nonconforming students, and ultimately send the message that these students do not belong.”

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