School & District Management

Principal Says Parents Can’t Wear Pajamas, Hair Rollers, and Satin Caps in Her School. Is It Racist?

By Denisa R. Superville — April 24, 2019 4 min read
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Should a principal create a dress code policy for parents entering their child’s school?

That’s a debate now raging after a Houston high school principal created a dress code policy for parents and guests, and informed the school community that those who showed up at school with a satin cap or bonnet on their heads, ripped jeans, low-cut tops, Daisy Dukes, and low-rider shorts would be prohibited from entering the premises.

“Parents, we do value you as a partner in your child’s education,” Carlotta Outley Brown, the principal of James Madison High School, wrote in an April 9 memo posted on the school’s website. “You are your child’s first teacher. However, please know that we have to have standards, most of all we must have high standards. We are preparing your child for a prosperous future. We want them to know what is appropriate and what is not appropriate for any setting they may be in. This is a professional educational environment where we are teaching our children what is right and what is correct or not correct.”

The letter lists a number of banned clothing items, many of them female items—and in particular, some often worn by black women.

Schools can set policies around what students can wear in schools, as long as the dress codes don’t discriminate against any particular group.

Targeting Black Women?

Adrienne D. Dixson, a professor of critical race theory in the department of education policy, organization and leadership at the College of Education at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said she was just “stunned” when she saw the policy, which she called “unwelcoming, and restrictive, and insulting.”

“It’s beyond the bounds of functioning as a school,” said Dixon, who called for the district to put an end to the policy. “It’s not your job to police parents in this way.”

“It’s anti-woman,” Dixson said. “It’s very much targeting black women who care for children and have a responsibility for children at school. They may be mothers, grandmothers, aunties, foster parents, ... but they have some responsibility for children. Targeting the dress lengths, and bonnets, and tops and pants, the pants with the frays and holes—which is an actual style that’s out—all those things they are targeting women, and in particular, black women.”

The principal also singled out sagging pants and undershirts as being banned, the only two clothing items that appear to be specific to men.

The policy also runs counter to making schools more welcoming to parents, and encouraging parents—particularly those who are low-income and minority—to be more involved in their child’s education, Dixson said.

The high school’s student body is 58 percent Hispanic and 40 percent black, while 74 percent come from low-income families.

“The mainstream narrative about black parents is that they are not involved,” Dixson said. “We want black parents to be involved, except that this is the only way they can show up. We institute a dress code. We institute behavioral expectations. It’s unwelcoming, and it’s contradictory to the philosophy of parent engagement or the beliefs around parent engagement, particularly outreach to black parents in urban school districts, and black parents of particular means.”

Such a policy may make parents less likely to engage with the schools, she said. But there could also be unintended consequences when it comes to enforcing the policy, she said. Because many urban school systems now have law enforcement officers on campus or work closely with local police departments, violating such a policy could lead to an unnecessary contact with the police, she said.

“If I were a parent I would think twice about going up to the school because you don’t know how vulnerable it makes you,” she said.

“Anything could happen,” Dixson said, adding that it was “short-sighted that any school district, but in particular in schools that service African-American families and children” would have such a policy.

Brown, the principal of James Madison High School, did not respond to a call for comment. And the Houston Independent School District said it that had no comment.

Brown, who is black, told the Wall Street Journal that the move was because parents were appearing at school in “risque clothing.”

“They were coming in a manner that was not presentable for the educational setting,” she told the paper.

Brown is an award-winning principal, who took over James Madison this school year, the school’s fourth principal in five years, according to the Houston Chronicle.

A school that she previously led, Lora B. Peck Elementary School, was named a National Blue Ribbon School in 2008. She was also featured on the Ellen Show in 2015.

Photo: Carlotta Outley Brown, the principal of James Madison High School in Houston, Tex., has implemented a dress code policy for parents and guests that bars entry to those wearing things like satin caps, bonnets, hair rollers, revealing leggings, and low-cut tops. -- Marie D. De Jesus/Houston Chronicle via AP April 18, 2018.

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.