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These school districts are actually changing their dress codes in response to student complaints

Photo: Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

For the past several years, American students have been making headlines for saying they felt unfairly targeted by their schools’ dress codes. Now some school districts have decided to listen to these complaints and are adjusting the rules accordingly.

“If you look nationally, there’s a lot of conversation about how some dress code policies aren’t just about dress; some school systems’ dress code policies are about gender issues, sexuality, self-expression for students,” Michael Doerrer, communications director for Frederick County Public Schools in Maryland, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “For us in Frederick County, it’s about ensuring an environment that is conducive to learning. Period. So our board wanted to set fair guidelines that spoke directly to that, something that everybody could understand, that could be fairly and transparently enforced, and that was strictly about dress, not about those other issues.”

Emphasizing gender equity
As in other school districts, girls in Frederick County had complained about the fact that teachers and administrators targeted them more than boys for violations. Paige Tolbard, the student member of the school board for the coming year, says an assistant principal pulled up the straps of her friend’s shirt to cover her bra straps in front of her classmates at lunch.

“None of us like the way that was handled,” Tolbard tells Yahoo. “If you see somebody wearing low pants or a low-cut shirt, it doesn’t really bother us as students. I don’t agree with the policy that it’s distracting for boys for females to have their shoulders out. If teachers publicly call a student out, that upsets the whole dynamic of the classroom or wherever the student is.”

After listening to students, teachers, and administrators, the FCPS Board of Education voted in July to adopt a new dress code. Instead of listing separate rules for male and female students, the new code states that its “standards are to be consistently and fairly applied to all students regardless of gender.” While the school board allows individual schools to set their own dress codes within its guidelines, it emphasizes that the codes should balance the need to create a safe and orderly environment with the students’ First Amendment rights. The code prohibits clothing that is “unduly revealing,” as well as anything that promotes violence, illegal conduct, or derogatory statements.

“Dress codes can be useful when it cuts down on provocative graphics on T-shirts, for example, as causing points of conflict between students can distract from academics,” says Deborah Gilboa, MD, a parenting and youth development expert. “It’s really problematic when it’s gender-biased in its enforcement, in terms of the messages it sends to kids about their bodies and what’s acceptable and what’s valuable and what’s admirable or not.”

Before school starts in September, Doerrer says that administrators and teachers will be trained in the new guidelines.

“I think I can safely say that no teacher or administrator wants to be the dress police,” Doerrer says. “That’s not what they’re there to do. They’re there to teach.”

A California experiment
On the other side of the country, California’s Alameda Unified School District is going even further, thanks to a movement started by students at Lincoln Middle School.

“It was really in my seventh-grade year, 2016-17, and I was in leadership, when a lot of students approached us and said they’re feeling uncomfortable, they’re feeling targeted, they’re not feeling safe, and they wanted an updated dress code,” Kristen Wong tells Yahoo.

While Wong had never been officially punished for violating the dress code, she recalled an incident in sixth grade when she walked into the school office to get a community service form wearing a cardigan over a scoop-necked tank top (which didn’t show any cleavage or stomach). Someone told her never to wear it again.

“I was really upset with myself for some reason, and I was so confused,” she says. “That’s what a lot of these girls and boys were facing. They were feeling stressed out and self-conscious if someone pointed them out.”

The student group successfully petitioned the school to change its rules, and then set its sights on the whole district. After a process involving focus groups of students, teachers, and administrators, the district decided to adopt a dress code very similar to the gender-neutral model set by the Oregon National Organization for Women in 2016. The so-called Oregon NOW model became the basis for dress codes set in Portland in 2016 and Evanston, Ill., in 2017.

Like the Oregon NOW model, the code Alameda will try this year may seem startlingly permissive to those used to standard dress code rules. It lists what students must wear — bottoms, tops, shoes, and opaque material “that covers genitals, buttocks, and areolae/nipples.” Clothing that depicts hate speech, violence, illegal activity, or pornography; headgear that covers the face (except for religious reasons); and visible underwear (except for waistbands or straps) are all prohibited. But the items that are allowed include pajamas, crop tops, tube tops, hoodies, ripped jeans, and hats.

If a student happens to violate any of the rules, the code states that loss of class time should be kept to a minimum, they can’t be forced to wear someone else’s clothing, parents should not be called, and students should not be shamed by being addressed in front of classmates.

“We’re really trying across our district to reduce the barriers to class attendance to students,” AUSD spokesperson Susan Davis tells Yahoo.

Davis knows that one of the reasons many give for stricter dress codes is that they are meant to prepare students to dress in professional settings. She doesn’t buy it, because the jeans and T-shirts they’ve been allowed to wear to school aren’t considered professional either.

“They wouldn’t wear jeans and a T-shirt to work,” she says. “They’re dressing for school. Just as in college, they’re dressing for college, and most of them aren’t wearing a suit and tie.”

Gilboa thinks that while it’s valuable for kids to learn that society judges people based on how they’re dressed, that’s something their parents can teach them, with reinforcement from the school.

Leo Long, another Lincoln Middle School student involved in the dress code change, also disagrees with the notion that other students’ clothing can be distracting.

“I’ve never looked at somebody and been distracted by their clothing,” he tells Yahoo. “The only thing that distracts me in a classroom environment is if somebody’s being loud and obnoxious verbally.”

Gilboa also disputes this notion of dress codes protecting students’ ability to learn.

“In the age of tablets and phones, clothing is probably the least of our distraction concerns,” she says, adding that educators have often simply used dress code violations as excuses to deal with students’ attitude problems. “I hope that [these rule changes] will allow the staff in hallways and teachers in classrooms to focus more on what our kids are doing than what they’re wearing.”

A lesson in democratic education
Another remarkable thing has happened in these school districts in the process of changing dress codes: Groups of students have learned how to use their voices to advocate for themselves.

“Involving the students in designing policies and rules teaches them to lead our schools in 10 or 20 years — and they will be,” Gilboa says.

Hearing 13- and 14-year-olds refer to “stakeholders” and “implementation” certainly drives home the point that this was a learning experience.

“Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but I don’t think this is going to lead to anarchy,” Long says. “At the end of the day, this is going to be a very positive change. It’s going to direct us to be more educationally focused rather than be overly concerned with whether or not a student is wearing a 5-inch skirt.”

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