School dress codes have disproportionately targeted girls, students of color, and LGBTQ+ students for years, according to research. But what happens when those students fight back?
Marginalized students have been known to get called out for not abiding by school dress codes for years, because of the way most dress codes are written, research has shown. Sometimes, it’s because their hair, bodies, and clothing are considered distracting or inappropriate, according to the dress code. Other times, it’s because of the enforcement mechanism the district chooses.
Dress codes are often embedded in student codes of conduct, or are written as policies meant to provide guidelines on what students can and can’t wear, including specific pieces of clothing, hairstyles, and accessories. Dress codes can vary widely in what they restrict. Ninety-three percent of students have dress codes in their districts, according to a Government Accountability Office report last year.
But that report, which studied school dress codes from 236 districts, found stark discrepanciesin not only the apparel, hairstyles, and accessories that dress codes ban, but how they are enforced. It also found anecdotal examples and data of Black students, LGBTQ+ students, and girls being disproportionately targeted.
“We have been most concerned about dress codes that target Black girls and girls of color because what we know from our experiences working with students—but also from data that’s out there—is that oftentimes these dress codes will be disproportionately enforced against girls of color based on intersecting race and gender stereotypes,” said Linda Morris, a lawyer for the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project who has been involved in keeping districts accountable for dress codes across the country.
(Morris was involved in three dress code cases from Florida, New York, and Texas which Education Week profiled.)
Dress codes often require that clothing worn by girls not be too revealing or distracting, banning “halter or strapless tops,” “skirts or shorts shorter than mid-thigh,” and “yoga pants or any type of skin tight attire,” the GAO report says.
Many of those policies 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.
Because dress codes are gendered, they often are also discriminatory towards gender non-conforming, nonbinary, and transgender students.
Figuring out exactly how dress codes impact students is challenging, the report found, because how districts enforce them varies widely, and there is a lack of national or even state-level data about the consequences of violating dress codes.
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, the study found.
That means while school dress codes are written and enforced unfairly to target certain groups of students more than others, the consequences of violating dress codes can vary widely from lost classroom time to suspensions.
In some cases, students have faced harsh discipline for dress code violations, such as being removed from school and sent to an alternative education program, being sent to in-school suspension for weeks, or being banned from extracurriculars and athletics.
However, in some cases, students impacted by dress codes and their families have fought against district policies.
That pushback came at a personal cost—some students were suspended, some lost classroom time, and others were banned from state-level athletic competitions.
Here are stories from three districts that successfully changed their district dress codes, what it took to make those changes, and what happened in the aftermath:
In Florida: High School Students Challenge Dress Code After Girls’ Photos Were Censored
When Riley O’Keefe, a freshman at Bartram Trail High School in St. Johns, Florida got her yearbook for the 2020-21 school year, she flipped to her page to find that a black box had been added over her chest.
She was shocked. As she leafed through the pages, she found almost 80 girls’ photos had been altered similarly. Some had black boxes added to cover their shoulders as well. She did not find any boys’ photos altered.
“Obviously, that’s embarrassing, right? Your photo was altered and looks crazy in the yearbook,” she said.
“A lot of guys were making comments about the way our chests looked in the picture. And some were even writing in girls’ yearbooks about it.”
On the day she got the yearbook, Riley happened to be wearing the same black bodysuit from the censored photo, she went to the front office and asked if her shirt was acceptable under the dress code, but the office staff couldn’t give her a definitive answer, she said.
So she went to her vice principal to ask the same question.
In New York: How Athletes Suspended for Wearing Sports Bras to Practice Changed the Dress Code
Last May, with temperatures hitting more than 80 degrees, Kayla Huba and her track team showed up to practice at Albany High School in New York in sports bras.
The boys’ team also had their shirts off, Huba said. But the athletic director, Alice Chapple, stopped the practice and warned the girls that their attire was inappropriate and a distraction to their male coaches, according to Huba.
The next day, the team showed up dressed the same way again, because it was even hotter, Huba said. This time, Chapple kicked them out of practice for violating the dress code. She also told one of the boys practicing to put his shirt back on, Huba said, but didn’t kick any of them out.
Later that day, Huba—now 19—and other team members tried to attend a lacrosse game in the same outfits, but security guards and Chapple stopped them.
“I don’t know her personal reasoning, but I feel like maybe it’s just society has kind of put it into everyone’s brains that women’s bodies are sexual, like we’re overly sexualized,” Huba, who was a senior at the time, said.
“But guys having their shirts off is not an issue.”
In Texas: Nonbinary Child’s Long Hair Results in Suspension, Dress Code Amended After Legal Battle
On the second day of middle school at Magnolia ISD in Texas, in September 2021, Danielle Miller got a phone call from her kid’s principal, asking her to cut Tristan’s shoulder-length hair.
At the time, Tristan identified as nonbinary. Now, they use he/they pronouns interchangeably. Cutting their hair meant losing a key part of their identity, they told Miller. Besides, they had had long hair for years and never received a warning or reprimand for it, Miller said.
“When I told Tristan that they were going to have to cut their hair because it was out of dress code, I was met with just absolute devastation and heartbreak,” she said. “And it wasn’t because it was a kid being told they had to do something they wouldn’t want to do, it’s because Tristan was able to identify as nonbinary based on being able to present themselves as feminine with long hair.”
According to the district’s dress code at the time, Tristan, then 11, was not supposed to have long hair because they were assigned male at birth. Miller explained to their principal over the phone that their hair was part of Tristan’s identity, but was told that they would have to go to in-school suspension if they didn’t do it.
“I explained to the principal, Tristan’s identification and just how Tristan likes to present themselves. And I said, ‘what would you do if you had a child that was like this?’ And she said, ’I would cut his hair,’ and hung up the phone,” Miller said.