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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘If They’re Learning, I Don’t Care What They’re Wearing’

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 12, 2018 14 min read
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The new question-of-the-week is:

How should schools handle student-dress codes?

School dress codes are often disliked by students for many reasons, and many teachers aren’t big fans of them, either.

Today’s column will consider different ways to approach the issue.

You might also want to explore The Best Resources For Learning About School Dress Codes

Here are responses to the question from Kelly Wickham Hurst, Jennifer Orr, Bill Ivey, Amy Sandvold, and Steven Goodman. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Jennifer, Bill, Kelly, and Jax Morgan, the student-body president at the school where Bill teaches, on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Response From Kelly Wickham Hurst

Kelly Wickham Hurst is a 23-year educator, classroom teacher, and administrator who founded Being Black at School in 2016. BBAS is an advocacy organization that uses frameworks and data to assist schools in being more equitable. She’s a mom of six and grandmother of two and lives with her husband in Springfield, Ill.:

Good gravy, this was the bane of my existence as an administrator. Schools should check their biases and aim for a feminist-friendly version of any dress code that doesn’t shame girls. Problems are caused when the adults are policing girls in ways they aren’t doing for the boys. If they’re learning, I don’t care what they’re wearing.

Response From Jennifer Orr

Jennifer Orr has been an elementary school classroom teacher for 20 years in Title I schools in northern Virginia:

The quick answer to this question is that schools should handle student-dress codes in a way that is respectful to the students. This is true both in the creation of the dress code as well as in the implementation of it. In addition, dress codes should be created and implemented in ways that are not biased. Bias in dress codes often impacts female students as well as students of color far more than others.

Take a look at your school or district’s dress code. Is the language gendered? Do you find words like “cleavage,” “sexually provocative,” or “low cut” in the policy? Are there requirements around the size of straps on dresses or shirts or the length of skirts, dresses, or shorts? If so, your dress-code policy needs a review. Those words, phrases, and requirements are overly focused on girls’ clothing.

The negative impact such dress codes have on girls’ beliefs about themselves and about their bodies is one of the reasons this must change. Dress codes that focus on girls’ bodies as distractions to males—codes which exist in elementary schools and apply to children as young as kindergarten—are teaching girls that their bodies are shameful. That is an unacceptable message to be sending to young girls.

Bias in dress codes is not just about gender. Students of color are often found in violation of school and district dress codes because of their hair. Black children who have hair extensions or who wear their hair naturally have been punished. Too often, dress-code policies are created by white administrators and reflect a very Western view of physical presence and presentation.

Resolving dress-code issues results in students feeling shamed and/or angry as well as in instructional and learning time lost. If a dress code is thoughtfully created, it must also be thoughtfully implemented. Conversations with students about dress-code violations should be handled privately, rather than in front of peers. Solutions should be available that do not require students to go home or spend extended periods of time in the school clinic in order to be ready to rejoin their classes.

The best way to ensure that a school or district’s dress code is respectful to students is to involve them. Create a survey for all students to take asking what should be included in a dress code and what should be the solutions to dress-code violations. Form a committee that includes a diverse group of students to be a part of creating the final dress code and to revise it as needed over time. Students should have a voice in the decisions made about them. Dress-code policies are a fairly simple way to begin including student voice and input in school decisions.

Response From Bill Ivey

Bill Ivey is the middle school dean at Stoneleigh-Burnham, a feminist girls’ school:

Since I work in a girls’ school, you might think dress code wouldn’t be all that big an issue. You’d be partly right—we don’t have to deal with the heteronormative nonsense about girls being distracting to boys if they show their shoulders, or collarbones, or whatever. But the underlying “slut-shaming” attitudes in our society that lead to that sort of nonsense affect our dress code, too—hem length for skirts and shorts, strap width for tops, and so on.

Early this year, two girls came to me wanting to spearhead a serious revision of our dress code. They felt it was objectifying and shaming, and that it went against the feminist, girl-positive mission our school has set for itself. This no doubt echoed some of the discussions we had about our dress code four years ago when the girls were in my Humanities 7 class. Among their stipulations both now and back in 7th grade: The world isn’t perfect, hierarchies should not be applied to people, and people should have an equal opportunity to choose their clothes without being judged. We did some strategizing, and they went forth to think about next steps.

Two years ago, another Humanities 7 class invited me to do Focus Question work (individual research, essay-writing, and presentations related to the theme question of a student-designed unit) alongside them. I chose for my Focus Question, “Is a feminist dress code possible and, if so, what would it look like?” My research showed that not only are middle and high school girls being told to cover up, so are kids are young as 5. Moreover, dress codes can lead to discrimination. Black girls being disciplined (even suspended or expelled) for wearing natural hair. Students being disciplined for wearing clothing generally associated with a gender different from the one assigned to them at birth. And so on.

My research also included taking a survey of students, teachers, and parents at different schools. I asked how people defined feminism, what they felt was working and wasn’t in their schools, and whether they thought a feminist dress code was possible. General consensus was that feminism is at root about gender equity, dress codes were problematic nearly everywhere, and a feminist dress code might be possible but might also be a contradiction in terms.

I came to believe that, were my school to try and create a feminist dress code, we would first need to affirm a genuine commitment to using an intersectional feminist lens. Then, we might create a committee including students, faculty, and parents, representing a diversity of gender, race, sexuality, class, abledness, and more. That group could seek input from all constituencies regarding the principles behind an effective dress code, settle on specific core principles, and build a new dress code around those principles—seeking input all along the way.

If that final dress code matched my own feminist vision, it would read something like this: “All members of the community should dress in a manner that enables them to focus safely on their work.” Simple, gender neutral, respectful of multiple cultures and of different families’ financial resources. No one would be objectified, and the only outside judgment call would involve safety, for example in certain chemistry labs or for athletics.

I know those kids have been doing their best to facilitate a deep dive into our dress code. Faculty members are behind this idea. Where it will lead, I can’t yet tell. But I know we are at least having the right conversations now. That is, at a minimum, a step in the right direction.

Response From Amy Sandvold

Amy Sandvold is a best-selling author and has more than 25 years in teaching and leading. Her books include The Passion-Driven Classroom, co-authored with Angela Maiers, and The Fundamentals of Literacy Coaching, co-authored with Dr. Maelou Baxter. Sandvoid has been both an elementary and middle school principal, curriculum director, and literacy coach. Amy blogs about how writing workshop can be fun at https://amysandvold.wixsite.com/teacheriniowa. Follow Amy on Twitter @TeacherinIowa:

Oh, the headaches! Should shirts be tucked and pants belted at all times for both boys and girls? Should socks be visible above the shoe? Are hooded sweatshirts offensive and banned from the hallway? Do you get the ruler out and measure hemlines the old school way? Are students sent to the office to call home if their shirt has the wrong logo or if they have too many piercings (if allowed)? Can student-athletes sport a beard during baseball season?

These questions are real issues I have been faced with as a school principal in a private system and as a teacher in a high-poverty school. They seem ridiculous when you read them. If left undefined or unanswered, however, they become real issues in schools that will eat away at instructional time. Here are some solutions to keep instruction and learning as the focus instead of piercings and pants.

  1. Be inclusive: Involve parents and the school board. Include parents from all represented cultures in your school system on an advisory committee to the school board. This group ensures that the dress code is culturally sensitive. When administrators and teachers have school board support, it is much easier to be the enforcer when a student violates the dress code.

  2. Be informed: Know your dress code and why you have it. Is it an equalizer so all students wear the same uniform? Is it a tradition in which you are representing your school by looking polished and prep school worthy?

  3. Be consistent: Do not allow exceptions. Go all in or do not have a dress code. This will be a challenge if a school dress-code rule has been changed or added. It can be confusing if the code is constantly changing from year to year. Consider placing a five-year rule that the code remains untouched.

  4. Be compassionate: Have a plan for assisting families and students that need financial assistance. Highland Elementary School in Waterloo, Iowa, (my wonderful school), has a uniform closet. The family-support specialist, Timina Micou, discreetly and privately helps students always have what they need. Teachers know the procedure for helping their students get what they need without shaming or drawing attention.

Following these three suggestions creates a schoolwide approach to handling student-dress-code issues and will save the principal, teachers, and parents from many preventable headaches!

Response From Steven Goodman

Steven Goodman is the founding director of the Educational Video Center in New York City. For more than 35 years, he has offered award-winning social-justice documentary workshops for students from underserved communities and professional development for teachers. Goodman writes extensively on youth media, critical literacy, and education reform for numerous publications and is the author of the new book It’s Not About Grit: Trauma, Inequity and the Power of Transformative Teaching (Teachers College Press: 2018):

Student-dress codes are causing controversy in schools across the country. Girls have been punished for wearing ripped jeans, leggings, short shorts, tops with both collarbones and shoulders showing, prom dresses that show “excessive” cleavage or with slits that expose the upper thigh, bras with the straps showing, and for not wearing a bra. Black female students have been punished for dress-code violations including wearing braided hair extensions, dreads, head wraps, and even wearing their hair naturally. Boys have been prohibited from wearing sagging pants, hats, and any clothing or backpacks with gang-related colors or symbols or clothing that displays messages that promote drugs and alcohol.

School authorities often say that focusing students more on their studies than on their fashion creates a safer, more serious school environment with reduced promiscuous behavior, harassment,and gang violence and improved academic achievement. Many students argue that these policies are racist and sexist, shaming girls for their bodies and black students for their hairstyles. They claim that these policies convey the messages that girls can control themselves but boys can’t, that girls are “asking for it” if they wear certain clothing and need to hide their bodies so as not to “distract” the boys or be harassed by them.

As protests arise over such dress-code policies and school leaders look for effective strategies for resolving them, this much is certain. Student voices must be heard throughout the process of discussing and updating student-dress codes. Students should participate in a dress-code committee or task force with teachers and administrators where discussion is facilitated with active listening protocols. Students can also be engaged in an in-depth youth participatory-action-research project as part of an English or social studies class or after-school club. They will learn real-world skills investigating the gender, racial, legal, and educational context of the problem and publicly presenting their research findings and recommendations for discussion by students, staff, administrators, and the broader school community.

Students can conduct surveys and interviews with students, staff, parents, and administrators asking such questions as:

  1. What impact do you think that student dress has on school safety and student academic achievement?
  2. What experiences have you or anyone you know had with dress-code violations?
  3. What values, judgments, or stereotypes do you feel the current code may have concerning the body image of girls, people of color, and LGBTQ students?
  4. What changes, if any, would you recommend to create a fairer and more equitable dress code?

After interviewing their peers about their experiences, students exploring the issue in greater depth may also research:

  1. The origins of modern student-dress codes and why schools have them.
  2. The 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines Supreme Court decision and subsequent cases that affirm students’ civil liberties to express themselves with their clothing in school and also limit those liberties by the “material or substantial disruption” they may cause.
  3. The evidence that either supports or questions the impact of student-dress codes in reducing student violence or improving student academic achievement.
  4. Student-dress codes that do not reinforce racial and gender stereotypes developed by other schools across the country that can be used as models.

Involving diverse and informed student voices in this public debate will not only produce a more just and equitable dress code with buy-in from diverse school stakeholders. It will also build a more engaged, student-centered school climate and culture in which students know they are being listened to and are creating new knowledge that makes a real difference in the life of their school and beyond.

Thanks to Kelly, Jennifer, Bill, Amy, and Steven, and to Jax, for their contributions.

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