How Can You Make A Non-Sexist Public School Dress Code?

by Elleanor Chin

Easy A

How do you write an egalitarian, objectively enforceable dress code? How do you write such a dress code for 50,000 students between ages of 5 and 18 years, across nearly 80 separate institutions? This is how my local public school system, Portland Public Schools in Portland, Oregon (“PPS”), tackled the puzzle.

In June 2015, some brave and articulate seventh grade girls, and one boy, testified before the PPS School Board about the ways their school disproportionately enforced the dress code against girls, resulting in middle school girls being forced to wait in the office, miss class time, and experience humiliation because their shorts did not pass the “finger tip test” or their tank top straps were too narrow. The school district appointed a committee consisting of parents, teachers, administrators, and students (including one of those girls) to draft and propose an updated dress code. The objective was to write a code that did not incorporate inherent bias on the basis of gender, race, or other identity, and could be easily enforced by the thousands of teachers, staff and administrators who dealt with a diverse student body every day.

In 2015, the PPS dress code was similar to many public school codes around the country: It included language banning “sexually suggestive” or “revealing” clothing. It also identified articles of clothing that girls wear (tank tops, bra straps, skirts, dresses). There was less gender neutral or “boy-specific” language, focusing on “sagging,” avoiding “gang colors,” or limiting head gear. Like many others, PPS banned profanity, hate speech, offensive or pornographic images, and depiction of guns or drugs. It called for clothing to be clean or free of holes. And there was some generic, aspirational language about a “distraction-free” environment or clothing “suitable for learning”.

Re-writing a dress code means figuring out what these different categories or criteria mean, and what objectives they serve. It can get hectic.

First, the “easy” stuff.

PPS had already discerned through some internal evaluations that requiring clothing to be “clean” is inequitable. Nearly half of PPS students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The schools serve thousands of students who don’t have sufficient funds for food, let alone new clothes, and who don’t have easy access to laundry (or even a regular place to sleep). Likewise, “gang colors” is vague and associated with targeting African American and Latino boys.

Preserving the ban on hate speech, pornography, guns and drugs was easy. Updating just required adding and clarifying some categories such as “gender identity.” And everyone on the committee was comfortable that alcohol and tobacco (in Oregon, marijuana as well) are not appropriate for public school display, even if use by adults is legal. Teachers and administrators see a lot of kids coming to school with pot leaves on their socks, apparently. 

Girls have bodies. They bring them to school. 

What do you mean when you say “distraction”?

Girls have bodies. They bring them to school. School dress codes contain many imbedded assumptions about the sexual nature of girls’ bodies, and not just their breasts or buttocks. Dress codes target their legs, their bellies, their shoulders, even their collar bones. Dress codes use language like “distracting” and “appropriate” and “sexually suggestive,” as though everyone knows what those words mean. Adults have wide discretion to interpret or apply the language.

The biggest challenge the committee faced was drafting objective, specific language. Rather than “sexually suggestive” or “revealing,” we wanted clear, anatomical guidance about what was not permitted. We started with a draft policy from the Oregon chapter of the National Organization for Women (“NOW”). The parents on the PPS dress code committee had also been involved in drafting the NOW policy. That policy states, “Clothes must be worn in a way such that genitals, buttocks, and nipples are covered with opaque material.” This language is designed to avoid girls getting penalized for wearing running tights or leggings, or having their tank tops and shorts measured by “finger tip tests” or “three finger tests” or worse. It takes out the assumption that showing the belly or back is inherently sexual. It also avoids having teachers scrutinize cleavage to determine how much is too much (something a male teacher reported being expected to do, which made him intensely uncomfortable).

Language that limits required coverage to three listed body areas is easy to enforce. But the discussion on the committee included a classic “parade of horribles” argument: “a kid could come to school in a bathing suit! And you know if a girl walked into the school in a bikini it would cause a major disruption” (it’s always a girl in a bikini, but a boy in a speedo would be startling as well). The hypothetical extreme scenario is used to justify a much broader limitation. The real challenge in this scenario is recognizing the problem: the major disruption.

If you have a “major disruption,” there are lots of ways to deal with both the disrupted and the disrupters. Most dress codes instead start with the premise that girls’ bodies are rife with disruption and the mere sight of thigh or shoulder could be a problem. This leads to body shaming, sexist enforcement, and victim blaming. Many dress codes and enforcement discussions explicitly call out “distraction” as the problem. What they mean is that boys (and sometimes male teachers, which is disturbing and predatory) may comment on or react to the girls. So the real message here is that girls (even eleven- and twelve-year-olds) are responsible for male self-control and the disciplinary framework should focus on the girls, rather than equipping the boys with appropriate behavioral tools and giving them consequences for “distracted” and outright harassing behavior.

The behavior.

Public school teachers have some of the hardest jobs ever. In addition to trying to wedge actual information to kids’ heads, they have to be disciplinarians, traffic cops, social workers, quasi-parents, EMTs, and a few other things besides. There are children and adolescents with severe challenges, and many who are just severely challenging. One high school teacher described a young man who came to school in what she called “a onesie,” a scanty one-piece garment that barely fit him. Coincidentally, he had to get out of his seat many, many times and walk across the class room to sharpen his pencil. She eventually told him to go get something else to wear from his locker. In another school, the students who were being disciplined for wearing hats would come to school with three, one on the head and one in each back pocket. The disciplinary violations associated with dress code frequently arose less from the dress and more because of defiant responses to enforcement.

Part of the benefit of a limited dress code is fewer ways to pick a fight. Shortening the list of things that teachers and administrators have to watch out for can only be a good thing, right? There are a couple of common counter points. One is that students should treat school like a “job” and part of the school’s function is to teach children and youth how to function in a larger society with certain limits and conventions. Therefore students should “dress for work.” In practice, that means teachers are projecting their values about what looks “professional” onto young people, without regard to how they are actually functioning in the classroom. Moreover, looking “professional” is often code for looking white and middle-class. The solution is to allow for attire to be part of the curriculum for life skills classes.

Looking “professional” is often code for looking white and middle-class.

The values.

Some people who enforce dress codes do it to assert power and control. But many, if not most, adults in public schools want kids to succeed and be happy, and view school as an opportunity to help them develop skills and values. One parent on the PPS committee argued that schools simply should not be in the business of telling kids how to dress or process the imbedded messages in fashion and attire. All the arguments that “wearing jeans to work just isn’t appropriate” or “hats indoors aren’t respectful” are personal values that families can instill in their children or not. If a parent’s values call for their child to leave the house dressed in a button up shirt and long trousers, the school shouldn’t second guess it. If a parent is okay with their child going to school in a crochet haltertop and cut offs, that’s a family matter too. Even if the parent can’t monitor the outfits and the kid changes into something skimpy at school, that’s a parent/child relationship issue.

Teachers responded poorly to the argument that they were not responsible for children’s welfare in the matter of values. They pointed out that they have students coming to school with no support at home. Their clothes are unwashed, inadequate for the weather, or far too small. Kids who grow up with mentally ill, violent, or absent parents need extra care and attention from the school and that includes how to behave and express themselves in multiple ways. Again, dress code itself is not part of problem that the schools need and want to address. If schools have resources to help vulnerable students (and many need more), they can provide them without uniformly trying to control how all students dress.

Next steps.

After a year-long revision and public comment process, the Portland Public School Board adopted a new code in June 2016. Training staff and administrators how to implement it still remains to be done. Individual schools may not realize they are no longer free to adopt more restrictive codes, that they can’t just add “legs” or “cleavage” to the list of controlled body parts. It is going to be hard to explain to some why a gut reaction of “she can’t dress like that” isn’t a basis for sending a girl to the office. But the language itself is less subjective and value-laden, which is the place to begin.

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