School Climate & Safety

Why Do Schools Hang On to Discriminatory Dress Codes?

By Christina A. Samuels — March 10, 2020 10 min read
De’Andre Arnold, middle, and his mother Sandy, second from right, attended the Academy Awards with the team behind the animated short “Hair Love.”
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The length of De’Andre Arnold’s dreadlocks didn’t keep him from walking the red carpet as a guest at the Academy Awards.

But his shoulder-length hair, which he has grown since he was in middle school, will keep him from receiving a diploma from the Texas school district he has attended since kindergarten.

Earlier this year, a social-media swarm enveloped De’Andre and Barbers Hill Independent School District, a school system of some 5,400 students in Mont Belvieu, 30 miles from downtown Houston. The district’s dress code bans male students from having long hair. It also states that they cannot wear their hair in a style meant to skirt the rule that hair can’t grow below the eyebrows or earlobes or touch a T-shirt collar.

Cut your hair, De’Andre was told, or face the prospect of not participating in the May graduation ceremony.

That is where the situation remains, even as De’Andre was feted by celebrities and professional athletes for refusing to cut his hair.

The social-media glare has dimmed on this particular dust-up, but it’s all but certain a similar controversy will flare soon in another school district, when dress codes clash with a growing number of students, parents, and researchers who see such rules and their enforcement as rife with racism and sexism.

“At Barbers Hill, they say we hold our students at a really high level,” De’Andre said in an interview with Education Week. He has withdrawn from the district’s high school and is now enrolled in another district. “If we’re students of such a high caliber, I don’t think hair would be such a distraction for us. It’s kind of ridiculous.”

Greg Poole, the Barbers Hill superintendent, did not respond to a request for comment from Education Week. In other interviews, he said the restriction was never about De’Andre’s hairstyle, just its length, which applies to all male students regardless of race. In an opinion piece for a local newspaper, Poole said his district is being wrongly condemned by outsiders.

“This issue isn’t an attempt to provide fair or ‘equal’ treatment to all students, which was a cornerstone of the civil rights movement in the last half century. This is an attempt to force unfair or ‘unequal’ treatment based on race or culture such that a child is given preferential treatment based on his ethnicity,” Poole wrote in the Baytown Sun.

He concluded: “We will continue to strive to be correct, not politically correct.”

Other Controversies

Almost monthly, a school dress-code issue pops into the public eye. Last September, a Texas grandmother was told by a public school principal that her 4-year-old grandson, who is African American, would have to cut his hair or wear a dress. In 2018, a 17-year-old Florida student was told by administrators at her public school that she needed to put bandages over her nipples. Her breasts, they said, were distracting other students.

In yet another Texas district, two African American students said that when they came to school with abstract designs shaved into the sides of their heads, administrators colored in the lines with a black Sharpie, rather than calling their parents. A federal lawsuit is pending against the Houston-area district, Pearland ISD, for those two incidents.

“The design was not something that was gang-related or offensive to another race or religion or women or anything like that. What difference does it make?” said Randall Kallinen, the lawyer representing the two students. “I don’t see how they’re disruptive, either. It’s just, ‘I’ve defined that as bad, so it’s bad.’ ”

In a statement to the Houston Chronicle, Pearland spokeswoman Kim Hocott said that “while specific details cannot be discussed, we remain confident the outcome will be favorable for the district.”

It’s not a surprise that many of the dress-code controversies that make the news involve girls and African American students, some researchers said. Their bodies are particularly under scrutiny by school officials—and the students know it.

“When we look at what’s happening to kids in school, it’s a lot of policing of black and brown bodies,” said Rachel Roegman, an assistant professor of education policy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She and co-author Alyssa Pavlakis, a graduate student at the university, interviewed students in a Midwestern high school and discussed their findings in an article that ran in Phi Delta Kappan.

“We don’t always give kids credit. Kids are aware that different kids, because of their race and gender, get different consequences based on the same offense,” Roegman said in an interview. Teachers and students at the school said black males are more likely to be disciplined for dress-code violations than white males, even though their violation rates were similar, according to the Kappan article.

But the act of “policing” is nuanced: Sometimes black or female administrators are the ones who are coming out in favor of such codes.

In April 2019, a Houston high school principal made national news when she banned parents from coming on campus wearing leggings, ripped jeans, minidresses, and hair bonnets, among other forbidden clothing items. The school is predominantly black and Hispanic, and the principal, Carlotta Outley Brown, is also black.

“There’s respectability politics. I think we need to start addressing that,” said Adaku Onyeka-Crawford, the director of educational equity and senior counsel for the National Women’s Law Center.

“To start, black girls are not going to be able to dress their way to freedom. You have to wrestle with the fact that anti-black messages have been handed down from generation to generation. People start to internalize those things, and it’s more harmful than it is helpful,” she said. “We should allow black students to be confident in themselves in school.”

The NWLC has produced two publications, Dress Coded and Let Her Learn, that explore the disparate impact of dress-code enforcement, sexual harassment, and other practices that they say impede girls’ success in school.

Lisa Frack, a former president of the Oregon chapter of the National Organization for Women, said she was tired of seeing story after story about girls running afoul of student dress policies. What if the organization, instead of criticizing problems after the fact, created a model policy that schools could adopt or work from?

So, it did. The model policy, which was adopted by the Portland, Ore., district in 2016, says students must cover their private parts and wear shoes, and that’s about it. There are no restrictions on hair length, width of tank-top straps, or whether underwear waistbands or bra straps must be covered. Students can wear hats or hoodies, as long as teachers can see their faces and if they are wearing earbuds.

“People were saying, ‘Oh, they’re going to wear bikinis and macrame jumpsuits'—nobody has,” Frack said. What has happened, she said, is that teachers no longer feel like they have to enforce dress codes, and students are no longer subject to enforcement that varied depending on the whims of different teachers and administrators. People from around the country have reached out in support.

“What are you trying to create in your school?” Frack said she would ask of school leaders. “You want kids to feel motivated and excited about learning in an open-ended way. There is no one way of looking that reflects the things they can go and do. To tell them there’s one way to be—that makes the grown-ups less credible.”

Frack is aware that what may work in liberal Portland, however, might not pass as easily in other parts of the country. But, she said, “parents can still boss their kids around as much as they want to. Do you really want the government telling your kids what to wear?”

Dorinda Carter Andrews, a professor of race, culture, and equity at Michigan State University, also said that school administrators should look closely at their dress codes and what they want them to accomplish.

“Does the policy in any way serve to police or surveil student bodies? And if so, how do we redress the policy?” Carter Andrews said. “I think the second question people do have to ask is, ‘Does our dress code further marginalize students who are already further marginalized by school culture?’ These are basic questions that need to be on the table before policies even get created.”

Traditionally, the dress-code policies are “cloaked in white-normed, Eurocentric framings of what is professional, what is good,” she said. And it’s troubling, she said, that lawmakers are now passing bills to prevent discrimination based on hairstyles associated with black culture.

“That ought to cause us all to step back,” Carter Andrews said.

On March 4, Virginia became one of four states, along with California, New Jersey, and New York, to enact a law banning discrimination based on hairstyles traditionally associated with black people, such as braids, dreadlocks, and twists. Lawmakers in Texas and several other states are working on similar laws.

But changing mindsets may be challenging.

Safety and Compliance

Permian High School in Odessa, Texas, immortalized in the book, film, and television show “Friday Night Lights,” is 500 miles from the Barbers Hill district. But it has a similar dress-code policy. Girls can’t wear spaghetti straps or tube tops. “Extreme modes of hair design and color” are forbidden. Piercings can only be in the ear. (Barbers Hill forbids male students from wearing earrings at all.)

Danny Gex, the principal of the 3,600-student school, said dress codes are not the most important issue he faces on a day-to-day basis. Still, he understands and supports such policies.

First, Gex said, it’s a safety issue. Though all Permian students are required to wear student IDs on a lanyard, a long-haired male student or a person with multiple piercings would quickly stand out as not belonging on campus, he said.

But also, he said, it’s about learning how to comply with rules, just as students will be expected to do once they leave school.

“You can say we force them to go to school, we shouldn’t force them to cut their hair. But what are you going to do when your job forces you to do something? My question is, we’re just going to allow kids to make whatever choice they want, whenever they want, and just hope that whenever they graduate ... they’re going to start complying then? I think that’s a silly argument.”

Gex said he gives students a chance to comply. “We try to use common sense,” he said. But if they refuse, then it’s not about the dress code, he said. “It’s about insubordination.”

Two students recently came to Gex with over 1,000 signatures opposing the district’s prohibition on “extreme” hair colors. He told them he was proud of their work and showed them how to get on the school board’s calendar to present their request to district officials.

“There’s nothing wrong with that. You have to teach kids how to stand up for themselves,” he said. “But you need to comply with the policy that’s set forth first, and then go through the changes.”

Back at Mont Belvieu, the whirlwind that surrounded De’Andre has died down. Earlier this year, he attended the Oscars, as a guest of a team that developed an award-winning animated short film called “Hair Love” that celebrated African American hairstyles. He also appeared on “The Ellen Show,” where host Ellen DeGeneres implored the district to relax its policy, right before presenting Arnold a $20,000 scholarship check.

But De’Andre is now attending school at neighboring Goose Creek ISD, as is his cousin Kaden Bradford, a sophomore whose hairstyle also ran afoul of Barbers Hill’s dress code. Goose Creek’s dress code requires only that hair be “neat, clean, well-groomed, and out of the eyes.”

Looking Forward

De’Andre is remarkably calm about leaving behind the district that educated not only him but many of his family members. His mother’s late uncle, M.Q. Bradford, served on the district’s school board from 1970 to 1984.

“We’re just looking at the positive. As long as I’m getting my diploma, I don’t just want to focus on the negative,” he said.

But the events have prompted him to become more politically aware. “This has kind of opened my eyes. I see now I have to stand up even more for everybody’s cause. I wouldn’t want anybody to have to go through this alone. I’m focused on trying to be there for others.”

But mostly, he’s said, he’s thinking about graduation and his dream of becoming a veterinarian. Recently, he had to say goodbye to two beloved dogs that died; one was older, the other relatively young. But the vet told him nothing could be done to cure the dogs’ ailments.

De’Andre’s goal, he said, is to be able to do something.

A version of this article appeared in the March 11, 2020 edition of Education Week as Dress Codes: Are They Racist and Sexist?


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