Equity & Diversity

Do School Dress Codes Discriminate Against Girls?

Internet postings highlight inequities
By Sasha Jones — August 31, 2018 7 min read
Students Sofia Valdez, left, and Sophia Portolese, wear clothes that were once banned at Alameda High School in Alameda, Calif., one of many schools whose dress-code policies are in the news this year. Alameda High now allows students to wear ripped jeans and midriff tops.

School dress-code controversies have been trending on the web in recent months, fanning a controversy over whether schools are enforcing the rules in ways that discriminate against girls.

In one of the latest episodes, a viral video initially meant to instruct students on the dress-code policy at Marcus High School in Flower Mound, Texas, drew intense criticism last month for depicting only girls as rule violators. In St. Louis, Oakville High School’s principal is captured on video apologizing to parents after telling female students they should not show off their bodies for fear of “distracting” male classmates. And a Roman Catholic school in New Orleans came into the internet spotlight when a 6th grader was forced to leave the classroom, in tears, for having braided hair extensions, which were against the school’s hair policy.

Schools with strict dress codes often claim that such regulations prevent in-class distractions, create a workplace-like environment, reduce pressures based on socioeconomic status, and deter gang activity. However, in an age of #MeToo and easy internet access, controversy is increasingly cropping up over whether excluding students from the classroom for violating dress codes is worthwhile, and whether such rules are disproportionately enforced against girls, and especially those of color.

The website Change.org now says it’s hosting more than 400 open petitions against individual school dress codes. The majority have been created by students, and many of the petitions’ titles assert that their schools’ dress codes are sexist or unfairly enforced.

“These rules aren’t neutral: many target girls, and especially black girls, by regulating skirt length and headwraps,” a report on school dress codes in the District of Columbia that was compiled by the National Women’s Law Center states. “And the rules aren’t applied equally, either. Students report that black girls, and especially curvier students, are disproportionately targeted.”

Lost Learning Time

Nationwide, 53 percent of public schools enforced a strict dress code during the 2015-16 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. But, data on who’s being punished for dress-code violations and how the penalties are being meted out are harder to come by. The study by the NWLC takes a rare quantifiable look at the issue.

Released in April, it examines the experiences of 21 black girls who attend or attended 12 District of Columbia schools, including charter schools, and analyzes districtwide student-discipline data.

In the one-on-one interviews, all of the girls reported experiencing or witnessing dress-code enforcement in their schools. Common punishments for those violations included missing class time or facing suspension, as a result of hair, makeup, or clothing styles that were deemed inappropriate. Since the report’s release, two of the schools have made changes to their dress policies.

"[Dress codes] sit at that intersection where they impact girls differently; they impact black girls differently,” said Nia Evans, the NWLC’s manager of campaign and digital strategies and education. “And when you add discipline to it, it’s really a disaster.”

The concern is that students who may already be struggling academically fall farther behind in class when they miss too much time serving suspensions, changing clothes, or waiting while administrators measure their skirt lengths. Nationwide, African-American girls are 5.5 times more likely than their white counterparts to be suspended from school, but it’s not clear what proportion of those punishments stem from dress-code issues.

Adrienne Dixson, a professor of education policy, organization, and leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, believes dress codes can prevent self-expression among students. Additionally, girls of color, who are more likely to wear styles such as braids, hair extensions, and Afros, are more likely to be disciplined, as the Louisiana 6th grader was.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, dress codes are legal as long as they do not “treat boys and girls differently, force students to conform to sex stereotypes, or censor particular viewpoints.” (This includes protection for transgender, non-binary gender, or any other students who may choose to dress in nontraditional ways.)

In some cases, the protests from students and parents are making an impact.

Victoria Schantz was a senior last year when the Women’s Empowerment Club at Indian Trail High School in Kenosha, Wisc., decided to take on the district’s dress code.

Schantz, who posted about the protest on the ACLU’s website, readily joined in, remembering feeling objectified by her teachers after having been pulled out of class for her clothing, given temporary clothes, and sent home to change on multiple occasions. One day, after being sent home twice—once for wearing a shirt deemed inappropriate and a second time for wearing leggings and a baggy shirt—the school called her mother to tell her that Schantz would have to spend the rest of the day completing her classwork alone in the office.

After reviewing 3,000 petition signatures and discussing the issue at six board meetings and two working sessions, the board agreed with Schantz’s club and created a more lenient dress code, which will be implemented this year. Changes include allowing students to wear yoga pants and leggings.

Schools’ Responses

Like the Kenosha district, many of the schools that have found themselves in the internet spotlight so far this year have issued apologies or scaled back their dress-code policies.

Marcus High School’s principal admitted that the video, which was an alternative for the annual fashion show that informs students of appropriate attire, “absolutely missed the mark” by featuring only girls. Oakville High School’s principal apologized to parents at an open house for her comments about girls distracting boys, promising that she will issue a similar apology to students during the school day; however, an official public statement had not been released as of press time.

Following a lawsuit brought against Christ the King Parish School by the Louisiana 6th grader’s family, the policy prohibiting hair extensions has been rescinded.

While some schools have responded to dress-code controversies with a more lenient dress code or by switching to uniforms, others, such as Alameda High School in California and Evanston Township High School in Illinois, decided instead to reform their codes completely.

The new dress code in Evanston begins by stating that it “supports equitable educational access” and “does not reinforce stereotypes.” The code outlines that students cannot wear clothes that depict hate speech, illegal items, or profanity; clothes that reveal undergarments (aside from visible straps or waistbands); and accessories that could be considered dangerous.

Essentially, students must wear a shirt, pants, dress, or skirt, and shoes, all of which do not pose a threat to another student or staff member. Everything else is fair game.

“We wanted students to know that your body is your body, and we want you to feel proud and comfortable in your own skin,” said Superintendent Eric Witherspoon, who helped reform the dress code.

The new dress code was implemented this past school year and, according to Witherspoon, the school has not received any negative feedback.

“The school did not fall apart, education kept going on, and students did not become more disrespectful,” Witherspoon said. “We have students of all different races, body shapes, gender expressions, and backgrounds, and the great thing is that they now are able to express themselves.”

Social Media Posts Raise Equity Questions About Dress Codes

A flurry of social media posts raise equity questions about schools’ enforcement of dress codes:

A version of this article appeared in the September 05, 2018 edition of Education Week as Do School Dress Codes Come Down Harder on Girls?

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