Equity & Diversity

School Dress Codes Aren’t Fair to Everyone, Federal Study Finds

By Eesha Pendharkar — October 27, 2022 6 min read
In this Sept. 7, 2018 photo, a student at Grant High School in Portland, Ore., waits for a ride after school. Portland Public Schools relaxed its dress code in 2016 after student complaints that the rules unfairly targeted female students and sexualized their fashion choices.
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A North Carolina principal suspended a high school girl for 10 days and banned her from attending graduation and any senior activities because she wore a slightly off-shoulder top to school. An assistant principal in Texas drew on a Black boy’s head in permanent marker to cover up a shaved design in his hair. And a transgender girl in Texas was told not to return to school until she followed the school’s dress code guidelines for boys.

These are only three examples across the country over the past few years demonstrating how school dress codes disproportionately target girls, Black students, and LGBTQ students.

A new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that not only are school dress codes not equitable, but districts that enforce them strictly also predominantly enroll students of color. The findings come as schools increasingly clash with parents, students, and civil rights advocates over disciplinary procedures used to regulate what students can—and cannot—wear to school.

The report also calls on the U.S. Department of Education to develop resources and guidance to help schools create fairer policies and more equitable ways of enforcing them—particularly when it comes to disciplinary actions that cause students to miss out on learning time.

GAO researchers analyzed dress codes from 236 public school districts (there are more than 13,000 districts) and conducted interviews in three of them from August 2021 to October 2022.

Alyssa Pavlakis, a school administrator from Illinois who has studied school dress codes, said the findings were not a surprise.
“It does not shock me that the reports are showing that these school dress codes are disproportionately affecting black and brown students,” she said, “because our schools were built on systems that were supposed to be predominantly for white people.”

Pavlakis’s research, published in 2018 with Rachel Roegman, concluded that school dress codes often sexualize girls, particularly Black girls, and effectively criminalize boys of color as their detentions and school suspensions mount.

What dress codes prohibit and who is impacted

Ninety-three percent of school districts have dress codes or policies on what students wear to school. School and district administrators said the policies promote safety and security for students. Prohibitions against hats or scarves, for instance, allow educators identify who is a student and who is not.

More than 90 percent of those dress codes, however, prohibit clothing typically associated with girls, commonly banning clothing items such as “halter or strapless tops,” “skirts or shorts shorter than mid-thigh,” and “yoga pants or any type of skin tight attire,” the report says.

Many of those policies, for example, prohibit clothing that exposes a student’s midriff. About a quarter of them specifically bar the exposure of “cleavage,” “breasts,” or “nipples,” which are aimed at female students.

Almost 69 percent prohibit items typically associated with boys, such as “muscle tees” and “sagging pants.”

“My girls definitely feel anger towards the school for not educating the boys and making [the girls] aware every day what they wear can be a distraction to the boys,” the report quotes an unnamed parent in one district as saying. Some parents told researchers the policies promote consistency with values their children learn at home.

102622 GAO Dress Code BS

Other policies fall heavily on students from racial or cultural groups that have traditionally been in the minority, according to the report. More than 80 percent of districts, for example, ban head coverings such as hats, hoodies, bandanas, and scarves, but only one-third of these dress codes specify that they allow religious exemptions, and a few include cultural or medical exemptions. Fifty-nine percent also contain rules about students’ hair, hairstyles, and hair coverings, which may disproportionately impact Black students, according to researchers and the district officials that GAO staff interviewed.

For example, 44 percent of districts with dress codes ban hair wraps, with some specifically naming durags, which are popular among African Americans for protecting curls or kinky hair, or other styles of hair wraps.

The report also cites dress codes with rules specific to natural, textured hair, which disproportionately affect Black students. For example, one district prohibited hair with “excessive curls” and another stated that “hair may be no deeper than two inches when measured from the scalp,” according to the report.

Pavlakis said while the report did not contain details about how dress codes affect transgender, gender-nonconforming, and nonbinary students, it’s an important aspect of their inequitable nature.

How districts enforce dress codes

About 60 percent of dress codes make staff members measure students’ bodies and clothing to check adherence to codes—which may involve adults touching students. An estimated 93 percent of dress codes also contain rules with subjective language that leave decisions about dress code compliance open to interpretation, the report says. The interpretations often target LGBTQ and Black students, according to experts quoted in the GAO report.

Schools that enroll predominantly students of color are more likely to enforce strict dress codes, and also more likely to remove students from class for violating them. This is particularly concerning because more than 81 percent of predominantly Black schools (where Black students make up more than 75 percent of the population) and nearly 63 of predominantly Hispanic schools enforce a strict dress code, compared to about 35 percent of predominantly white schools.

“When we take away that instructional time because they’re wearing leggings, we are doing our students a disservice,” Pavlakis said. “And at the end of the day, we’re doing our black and brown students a bigger disservice than anyone else.”

The report also found that schools with a larger number of economically disadvantaged students are more likely to enforce strict dress codes. Dress codes can be challenging for low-income families to adhere to, especially if they’re required to buy specific clothing items, such as uniforms, or can only allow their children to have hairstyles approved by schools, experts quoted in the report said.

Finally, schools that enforce strict dress codes are associated with statistically significant, higher rates of exclusionary discipline—that is, punishments that remove students from the classroom, such as in-school suspensions, out-of-school suspensions, and expulsions.

That means students of color and poor students—most specifically, Black girls—are most likely to face consequences for violating school dress codes, causing them to miss class time. The more class they miss, the more likely it is that they will fall behind in school.

While dress code violations do not often result directly in exclusionary discipline such as suspensions and expulsions, an estimated 44 percent of dress codes outlined “informal” removal policies, such as taking a student out of class without documenting it as a suspension.

Districts also commonly list some consequences for violations of their dress code policies, such as requiring students to change clothes, imposing detention, and calling parents or guardians.

“In order for students to get to the point where they can learn, they need to feel a sense of belonging. They need to feel cared for and loved,” Pavlakis said.

“If we spend part of our day telling students, ‘you don’t look the right way. You’re not dressed the right way, you could be unsafe because you have a hat or a hood on,’ kids aren’t going to feel loved supported a sense of belonging,”

A version of this article appeared in the November 23, 2022 edition of Education Week as School Dress Codes Aren’t Fair to Everyone, Federal Study Finds

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