Equity & Diversity

Teen Boys Wear Dresses to Call for Changes to School Dress Code

By Evie Blad — February 03, 2016 3 min read
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High school students in California’s Clovis Unified School District called for a gender-neutral dress code last week after the district’s school board voted down a proposal that would have “allowed boys to wear long hair and earrings and removed language that says dresses and skirts are for girls,” the Sacramento Bee reports.

In a visible push for changes to the current policy, a group of male students wore dresses to school and some of their female peers wore men’s collared shirts. Student Emma Sledd shared this photo on Twitter.

Clovis Unified Students Have Concerns About Gender Norms

Clovis Unified students argue that their district’s dress code may violate a state law that prohibits discrimination against students on the basis of gender, gender identity, or gender expression.

“We are asking for a dress code with no restrictions on hair length, facial hair, and piercings, as well as the ability to voice our opinions and suggestions on other aspects of dress code, and for these suggestions to be considered fairly,” students wrote in an online petition that had 2,750 signatures Wednesday afternoon.

“Students, parents, and community members alike believe that the mindset during the implementation of the 1975 CUSD dress code does not reflect the mindset of 2016’s society,” the petition says.

The ACLU has taken the district to court over its dress code in the past, the Sacramento Bee reports.

“No boys at Buchanan High were disciplined for wearing dresses in class,” the paper reports. “Sophia Brodish, a sophomore at Buchanan, wore a shirt to school that’s within the limits of the dress code policy, but wrote ‘dress code sucks’ in rainbow colors across the back. She was written up, as she expected, but said it was worth it.”

A school spokesperson told the paper the district would work with all students to make sure they are accommodated under the existing dress code. “If a student has come to the administration, we’ll work with them to make sure that they have an environment on campus that allows them to express themselves with the gender in which they identify,” she said.

Dress Codes Can Be a Tricky Issue for Schools

School dress codes can be difficult to draft and enforce. The aim of such policies is often to reduce distractions in classrooms, but overly restrictive policies can create concerns about trampling on students’ free speech rights. And what is distracting to one generation may be common for another.

Local stories about dress codes pop up pretty regularly. In many cases, girls say rules prohibiting skirts of a certain length, narrow tank top straps, and even yoga pants are sexist or excessively strict. Students sometimes complain that rules banning logos for brands of alcohol mean they can’t wear shirts like soccer jerseys. Second Amendment enthusiasts have pushed back against rules restricting the depiction of weapons on clothing. Also problematic are rules aimed at “gang apparel,” which is sometimes poorly defined in student handbooks. And, as the debate over school discipline continues, many student advocates have said suspending students for dress code violations is excessive and unnecessary. Our reporter Mark Walsh, who covers school law issues, has written about numerous legal challenges to school rules about students’ hair and clothing.

In its 1969 ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld students rights to wear black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” said the majority opinion in that case. The justices added, however, schools have a legitimate interest in restricting speech that “materially and substantially interfere[s] with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school.”

What do you think? Is the district’s dress code appropriate? How should schools address the way students dress?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.