Dress code policies have been implemented throughout schools for as long as I can remember. When dress codes were first established they were for maintaining discipline and order for the sake of protecting students. Yet more recently students and parents are beginning to protest against these policies. In Haven Middle School in Evanston, IL over 500 students signed a petition opposing the ban of leggings and yoga pants (What’s Fair).
Considering the information I have synthesized, school dress codes are evolving to becoming something I cannot fully understand or respect. Despite the initial purpose of dress codes, the implementation of such policies should actively be changed because of the controversial issues regarding expression and discrimination of students, especially those who are female. School dress codes originated among English private schools but have only recently become a reoccurrence in American public schools. This was due to the economic conditions in the 1950s and 1960s which lead to clothing designers to target students, and the social upheaval in the 1960s where students dressed in the means of individual and political expression. Educational policymakers planned to create dress codes, to invest upon an increasingly diverse student population. The first school dress code law was established in 1969 by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case, Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent School District.
The group determined to publicize their objections to the hostilities in Vietnam and their support for a truce by wearing black armbands (Tinker). The Court’s final verdict decided that schools are allowed to limit student expression if a legitimate concern arises about such expressions, such as disruption to the learning environment or violation others rights. Dress code litigation has been influenced by two other student speech cases. First, Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser, centered on a speech that Fraser delivered to the student body. During the entire speech, Fraser referred to his candidate in terms of an elaborate, graphic, and explicit sexual metaphor (Bethel). The Court affirmed that students had the right to advocate unpopular viewpoints, but the Court noted that the expression of those views may be balanced against reasonable standards of civil conduct as established by the school district. In essence, the Fraser standard evidence that student speech may be restricted if it is lewd, offensive, or inappropriate in the school setting.
The second influential case, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988), involved the publication of a high school student newspaper. The Supreme Court held that the school newspaper was not a public forum and as such did not receive the same pure speech protection as did the armbands in Tinker. In essence, the Court modified the Tinker standard, noting that if the speech would materially disrupt classwork or invade the rights of others, then the school could impose reasonable constraints over the speech. Accordingly, the Hazelwood standard establishes that school officials may restrain student speech if there is a legitimate pedagogical reason to do so. Today’s school boards have created laws to alter dress code rules to it fit their district. A majority of these dress code rules essentially are enforced for similar concerns. Promotion of a safe school environment and prevention of interferences with schoolwork. For instance, dress code rules are largely enforced upon clothing that come across as vulgar or obscene. Dress code rules are also enforced when an administrator or staff member finds that the student has worn their clothing in a manner that disrupts school activities. Although despite having such power to enforce and punish these breaks in dress code, administrators or staff members are not allowed to censor a student’s expression because they are in disagreements with the student’s message. A balance within the power of enforcing such rules should be established in order for students to feel comfortable.
A large issue that students have school dress codes is that it denies them of their right to self-expression. Many lawsuits have been filed and fought in court as students find that having policies on what to wear is suppression of showing their individualities. Students do not only express themselves through their clothes, but with their hair, the accessories, and jewelry they wear, and even their shoes. In which, schools have dress code policies to regulate these things as well. A protest occurred at the Pretoria High School for Girls with students demanding the school change its policy that effectively banned Afros and unfairly policed its black students (Chutel). A meeting was held amongst students, staff, and parents, and concluded for the hair restriction to be suspended and for an investigation to undergo. After the decision had been made at Pretoria High School for Girls, another school, Johannesburg’s Parktown High School for Girls, alter their hair policy to assure that the students were comfortable showcasing their natural hair. These changes were made to avoid being deemed racist.
Another school, St. Michael’s in Bloemfontein, fell under a negative crossfire and after a parent shared photos of black girls who were lined up to be tested. The girls’ hair had to fit into a swimming cap or school hat as a test of their compliance with the uniform code (Chutel). It caused greater controversy as no white girls were seen being tested. A hairstyle should not have to be a radical political choice (Chutel), as simply it is only hair and students should be able to have the right to express themselves with their hair if they pleased. Enforcement for dress code rules were done to maintain order and discipline, but there were times when students are uncomfortable with the rules being enforced. Not everyone is the same, some people dress to please others, some people dress to please themselves, and some people put clothes on just to have clothes on. The statement that “leggings are not pants” has been a term I’ve heard since middle school, and is similar for other students in different districts.
In 2016 at Seabury Hall, located in Makawao, HI, the female students frequently broke the dress code by wearing leggings and shirts without collars, and as punishment they receive detention. Joy Gentil, a student at Seabury Hall, wrote an opinion article for her school’s journalism class called “Dress code: Uncomfortable Learning Attire”. In which she addressed the burning question that her school staff constantly asked, why do the girls continue to break the rules despite knowing the consequences? Gentil has a simple answer, “We are not trying to accentuate our bodies; we are trying to come to school in the most comfortable attire that we can in order to be able to focus without worrying about how much we are sweating in our jeans. After all, we live in Hawaii!” It is evident that other factors come into play as to why these female students are breaking the dress code. It is confusing to understand why school staff were not taking these factors into consideration, but rather go straight to automatically punishing the girls for breaking dress code. Dress codes are a way of reinforcing various instances in order to keep the balanced environment that school boards seek. Gender norms are something most school either have a hard time addressing or do not address at all, which is unfortunate for the individuals who do not identify with the being a boy or a girl as it discriminates them for the rest of the student body. Clothing choice is intensely personal for all students, but particularly for trans* students who may not yet have access to gender confirming health care (Glickman).
When a transgender student wears a certain item that does not coincide with their ‘biological’ sex, they are disciplined for breaking dress code rules. Transgender students have been sent home for wearing clothing different than what’s expected of their legal sex, while others have been excluded from yearbooks (Zhou). As a result, transgender students do not feel comfortable or safe in their own school environment because of the discriminatory dress code policies. Such an exclusive dress code for just one person or group is creating isolation between that student and their classmates. This creates a large chain reaction as the lack of acceptance and comfort leads to increases in stress and absences, both of which result in lowered academic performance measured in GPAs and standardized test scores (Glickman). Dress code rules were supposed to be set to protect and maintain discipline but to enforce such a discriminating policy that leads to isolation of a student, the policy sounds hypocritical. School dress code policies across the board have bumped heads within every aspect across the board, but it’s largest issue is that it is sexist towards female students. Girls are more often the ones who are put in a bad light when it comes to dress code rules.
Female students are always the one’s beings stopped and asked that if they are aware that they are breaking dress code. They must only wear a certain length when it comes to skirts and shorts or cannot wear accessories such as belly button rings. On the other hand, the male students do not even get half of what the female students do. Girls are always at fault for being a distraction to other students with the clothes they wear. Laura Mullin, a published playwright and writer, wrote an article called “Why I’m Ignoring My Daughter’s School Dress Code,” about the time she was told that her daughter had broken dress code rules. Mullin writes, “Here was my daughter, only a couple of years out of kindergarten, being body shamed … When I tried to get to the bottom of the reason for the dress code, it became clear — it was to avoid distracting the boys.” The mother was heartbroken about such a poor display of care from her daughter’s teacher. Mullin then read up articles about girls getting sent home from school due to the clothing they were wearing. Mullins goes against the school dress and advocates for people not to tell girls what to wear. Mullins states, “As a mom, I see these codes as subtle messages being sent to my daughter to be ashamed of her body. To cover it up. But I have to wonder — what is so alarming about a midriff or a bra strap?” This brings us back to blaming girls for being a distraction to male students.
Li Zhou quotes Anna Huffman, a graduate from Western Alamance High School in Elon, North Carolina stated, “To me, that’s not a girl’s problem, that’s a guy’s problem.” Female students do not dress in any way to attract or flaunt themselves to their male counterparts, it is all purely for comfort. Catherine Pearlman, a mother of two, has similar feelings as she states, “We need to be teaching the boys what appropriate behavior is instead of teaching the girls that they have to cover up to protect themselves from the boys.’ (Wallace). It has been a long battle girls when it comes to dress code policies, female students should be advocated for in the sense that they are not constantly hassled for wearing tank top or leggings as it could distract the boys. It is not about the boys, it never was about the boys and it never will be.