School Climate & Safety

School Dress Codes Often Target Girls. What Happens When Male Teachers Have to Enforce Them?

By Alex Harwin & Sarah D. Sparks — February 15, 2024 11 min read
Image of articles of clothing on a coat hook outside a school entrance.
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As a male special education teacher and IEP coordinator in a rural Missouri high school, Mike Ryan said he has to walk a “very fine line” discussing attire with female students.

Enforcing the dress code is a standard part of his job as a teacher, Ryan said, and he only occasionally has to deal with violations—usually girls who need to “cover up.” But the infractions often require uncomfortable conversations with students.

“The perspective of that student [is] ‘Why are you looking at me like that?’ ‘Why are you doing that?’” he said. “What you say could be construed as inappropriate conversation, contact with a student. … You have to be very careful with what you say and how it’s received.”

School dress code policies that target skirt length or forbid bare midriffs and shoulders often disproportionately affect female students. Efforts to create fairer student dress codes gained traction as the #MeToo movement took hold in 2017, with high-profile sex discrimination lawsuits and civil rights complaints against schools keeping up pressure. But educators say a continuing lack of guidance and training around enforcement of dress codes leaves them—and particularly male teachers—vulnerable to accusations of discrimination and sexual harassment and can distance them from students they are trying to engage in learning.

Proponents of dress codes argue that they build a more cohesive class identity, prevent distractions, and put students of different income levels on more equal footing. But William Crick, a 17-year veteran high school teacher in Miami-Dade public schools in Florida, said he avoids enforcing his school’s decades-old dress code for some of the same reasons. “I don’t consider dress code violations as a serious reason to disrupt class and to antagonize a student,” Crick said. “I guess you could look at it as sending a message, but you could also look at it as losing this kid for a year.”

In 2022, the U.S. Government Accountability Office, a federal watchdog agency, found that 60 percent of school dress codes call for adults to measure students’ bodies and clothes, often in ways that require them to touch students. The dress codes also more heavily control girls’ attire: 90 percent of schools restricted girls’ clothing items like tank tops or skirts, 20 percentage points more than the share of schools that restricted boys’ clothing.

The job of enforcing dress codes, in many schools, falls to both male and female educators.

In a December nationally representative survey, the EdWeek Research Center found that 70 percent of elementary principals and teachers support male staff enforcing dress codes for female students showing excessive skin. This support falls to 51 percent among middle school educators and to 41 percent among high school staff.

Discriminatory dress codes or enforcement can run afoul of the equal-protection clause and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which bars discrimination based on sex in federally funded schools. But beyond the legal risks, educators say teachers who are unprepared for the thorny discussions of race, gender, and bodily autonomy that dress codes ignite can lose the trust and engagement of their students.

“Even rules that are phrased in a neutral way—meaning they don’t say, this rule is for boys and this rule is for girls—have the potential to result in discriminatory enforcement,” said Chloe Kempf, attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union in Texas, which has been studying dress codes in that state.

Enforcing dress codes can put male teachers in a delicate position. “As a male educator at a middle school, I feel EXTREMELY uncomfortable enforcing dress code,” one Tennessee teacher wrote anonymously in the EdWeek survey.

The dress code for girls at Deric English’s rural junior-senior high school in California “includes what’s known as the B, B, and B policy—no boobs, butt, or belly showing.”

But a male teacher, he said, “must be especially professional and know that sarcasm, humor, and such are not effective when dealing with female dress code violations. Male teacher enforcement of dress code policies is different from that of a female teacher enforcing such dress code policies. The differing dynamics seem obvious, and the male teacher must act in a way that is beyond reproach.”

Ironically, discomfort and wariness on a male teacher’s part can heighten girls’ risk of being embarrassed or shamed as part of dress code enforcement, advocates say, because it makes it more likely that girls will be called out for infractions in front of others (for purposes of having witnesses) or that male teachers will outsource enforcement to colleagues or to nonteaching staff—like security guards or school resource officers—with even less training in handling such discussions with students.

Several research studies as well as reports by the GAO, the ACLU, and the National Women’s Law Center have found students of color face disproportionate scrutiny and enforcement from nonteaching staff at schools when it comes to dress codes. In one 2022 civil rights complaint noted in the GAO report, Black students in one district reported that an assistant principal “followed them and treated them differently of other racial groups ... with respect to dress code violations.”

“Specifically for Black female students, there’s a vilification bias that some educators have when they’re enforcing the codes,” the ACLU’s Kempf said, “where Black girls’ bodies are perceived as more sexual and less appropriate, and therefore Black girls are more likely to experience dress code discrimination.”

Outsourcing enforcement

The male teachers Education Week spoke to said they are more likely to turn to a female colleague to handle girls’ attire.

Ryan, the Missouri educator, said he calls on his female colleagues when he worries he might be accused of misconduct by a student if he talks to her about inappropriate clothes. He turns to women “when I know a student is kind of more on that edge of going to say things or tell untruths, I’ll just have a female teacher talk to them about it. … so it’s not necessarily coming from me all the time.”

Similarly, English said he refers dress code violations to a female academic adviser, but that some students change clothes on the way to the office. “It can be a cat-and-mouse game of changing clothing, getting caught, changing clothing, getting caught,” he said.

Crick said he, like many teachers in Miami-Dade schools and nationwide, defers to security guards and school resource officers to police student attire. “We don’t have enough security guards,” he said, so he rarely calls them for an individual student, relying instead on periodic “sweeps” the guards may do in classrooms or the halls.
“The security guards have the ability to tell somebody that they’re taking them to either the uniform closet or indoor suspension for being out of uniform [meaning wearing blue, yellow, or white collared shirts and blue pants]. The teachers can do that, but it’s really counterproductive for us” with students, he said.

While this can shield teachers from the hassle and arguments of enforcement, it comes with its own risks.

Studies find SROs in high-minority schools are more likely to view students as threats, increasing the likelihood that minor infractions like dress code violations lead to removal from class. In a study of schools in the District of Columbia, and a forthcoming one of Miami-Dade, researchers from the National Women’s Law Center found that female students are more likely to feel unsafe in schools where security personnel enforced the dress code.

“There were male security guards that make a lot of the girls feel uncomfortable,” said Bayliss Fiddiman, NWLC’s director of educational equity. She said students told researchers, for instance: “He makes me feel really uncomfortable the way he looks at my body. This security guard has commented on my body.”

Fiddiman warned educators that simply sending students out of class and telling them to “cover up” a tank top can create a damaging double-standard. “You likely wouldn’t see this same phenomenon if there is a male student with a tank top in class, and a female teacher telling him, ‘Oh no, I can’t look at that, you need to cover up. I don’t want to send you out of here!’ ” she said.

Lack of guidance

Experts argue the lack of guidance and support for teachers may be hamstringing district efforts to create better dress code policies.

The GAO called for the U.S. Department of Education to, among other recommendations, provide examples of dress codes that “safeguard students’ privacy and body autonomy” and guidance on how to enforce them fairly by December 2023. However, the Education Department did not have an update by press time on what it is doing to respond to the report. Jacqueline Nowicki, the GAO director, said in an email this month that the agency is still reviewing how the Education Department has acted on its recommendations, and hopes to update its status in the next few weeks.

“A lot of the discriminatory dress code enforcement stems from implicit bias that school staff are not necessarily aware of,” Kempf said, “and so any training that can bring that bias to light and help to remediate it will go a long way in making dress code enforcement more equitable.”

While national teachers’ unions have voiced concern for the effects of discriminatory dress codes and enforcement on students, neither the National Education Association nor the American Federation of Teachers provide training for members on how teachers can enforce dress in ways that protect students’ privacy and the teacher-student dynamic.

Teacher-student collaboration may ease enforcement

Some districts are trying to build more equitable dress code policies on their own. One of them is California’s Alameda Unified, which moved to overhaul its dress code after a group of Lincoln Middle School students and their teacher raised concerns in 2016 over inconsistent enforcement and disproportionate impact on girls.

Susan Davis, Alameda’s senior manager of community affairs, said the district recruited teachers and students across schools to revamp the dress code. Its new policy aims to be more gender-neutral and focused on allowing “clothing choices to ensure comfort and minimize body shaming,” for example, by allowing leggings and midriff-baring shirts while continuing to ban clothes that promote drug or alcohol use or hate speech.

Before the new dress code, Davis said Alameda staff members typically enforced the dress code more strictly in middle schools like Lincoln than in high schools.

“I think [it] might have to do with administrators’ and families’ slight discomfort with changing bodies in pubescent middle schoolers,” Davis said. “They’re just beginning to develop into their adult bodies, and there just was more control around what could a [middle school] girl show.”

Alameda adapted a model dress code developed by the Oregon National Organization of Women in 2016, which was used in several districts in a handful of other states. It emphasizes respect and instructional continuity in enforcement. It specifically prohibits:

  • Removing students from class for dress code violations or telling them to correct dress during instructional time.
  • Forcing students to wear extra school clothing that is not their own to correct a dress code violation, a tactic it calls “akin to a dunce cap or scarlet letter.”
  • “Shaming” students during a dress code check, such as asking them to kneel or bend over to check clothing fit or measuring skirts or sleeves—basically anything that would require them to display their bodies in front of other students, staff, or parents.

Now that staff members working in all grades have adapted to the new dress code, Davis said, “the infraction issue is just not a big deal.”
The number of dress code violations in the roughly 8,300-student district dropped from 21 at the middle school level and 10 at the high school level in 2015-16 to none by May of 2018-19, just over a year after the policy was fully implemented.

That was a dramatic decline, but it’s difficult to tell how much the new dress code actually changed in practice, considering Alameda had so few dress code violations before the new policy. Alameda’s enrollment also fell more than 15 percent during that time, to 9,383 in 2018-19, according to federal data. (As of 2022-23, the district serves 8,830 K-12 students.)

Having students, teachers, and administrators collaborate to solve practical issues around dress code enforcement can help build trust, Fiddiman noted.

“Literally, do you have an air conditioning system in [the school]? Because if you don’t and there are fans in the window, then it’s probably not very reasonable for you to not expect a couple girls to show up with tank tops,” she said.

Audrey Ohwobete, a college student and member of the teen council of Girls Inc., a nonprofit that advocates for girls’ rights and opportunities, said consideration can go a long way to improving enforcement interactions between teachers and students.

“It’s difficult to take corrections from somebody who doesn’t respect you and from who you don’t respect,” Ohwobete said. “So what’s most important is that … you’re coming from a place of respect and a place of care for that student, just coming up and being like, ‘Hey, I’m looking out for you.’”

Ryan, the Missouri teacher, agreed that in spite of adult discomfort, the effectiveness of dress codes relies on more conversations between teachers and students.

“We really need to ask students’ opinions on what they think of their dress code,” he said. “Of course, [students are] going to say they hate it and they’re dumb and all these other choice words. But ... everyone wants just to have a seat at the table and their voice to be heard.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 13, 2024 edition of Education Week as School Dress Codes Often Target Girls. What Happens When Male Teachers Have to Enforce Them?


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