Everything You Need to Know About School Dress Codes and Your Child's Rights
Stories of students who've been made to feel humiliated at school for their appearance are a parent's worst nightmare, and it seems like they're becoming more and more common
Stories of students who’ve been made to feel humiliated at school for their appearance are a parent’s worst nightmare, and it seems like they’re becoming more and more common. And though it’s difficult to quantify if these violations are becoming more prevalent or if it’s a matter of more awareness being brought to the issue, it is apparent that female students and students of color are most often pulled out of class or forced to change their clothing or hair during school, according to Emma Roth, a legal fellow with the American Civil Liberties Union Romen’s Rights Project.
“School administrations frequently enforce dress codes and what a properly groomed student should look like, based on white, upper-middle-class norms about femininity and modesty,” Roth tells PEOPLE. “Not conforming to these norms disproportionately affects students of color and female students.”
A viral example of this bias swept the Internet in August, when a Texas school created a video depicting students violating the dress code for wearing athletic shorts – all of whom were female. After a student at the school drew attention to the discrepancy, asking “What about the boys who wear shorts, or show their shoulders?”, the principal apologized, saying the video “absolutely missed the mark.”
In another instance from 2017, a high school senior was allegedly almost arrested and banned from attending her graduation because she wore a shirt with a scooped neckline that showed part of her shoulders. The same North Carolina school, Hickory Ridge, made headlines in 2016 for sending 46 female students to the principal’s office for wearing leggings with shirts that weren’t long enough.
Also in August, 11-year-old Faith Fennidy was escorted out of her school in tears for wearing a neatly braided hairstyle, which the school said violated its policy against hair extensions. “They told her not to come back,” the family’s lawyer told the New York TImes, though the school responded in a statement that Fennidy could return once she altered her hairstyle to comply with their rules. However, as Fennidy’s brother pointed out, “Extensions make the hair easier to maintain. It allows my sister to have access to the swimming pool without having to get her hair Re-done every night … it’s just one more barrier to entry for black people.”
Similarly, Roth has worked with two black teenage girls, Mya and Deanna Cook, who refused to stop wearing braided hair extensions even after their Massachusetts school asked them to do so. The school then banned the twin 16-year-olds from playing sports and gave them each several hours of detention. But still the girls stood strong, and eventually the Massachusetts Attorney General sided with them, telling the school its hair policy violated federal law.
In addition to the built in racial bias against hair extensions and braids, Roth notes that many of these policies have inherent sexism as well – they are often designed and enforced around the excuse that attire could be “distracting” to their male classmates, rather than whether the attire is actually appropriate for school and comfortable for the girls wearing it. This has the effect of sexualizing girls, no matter what age they are.
In 2015, a 5 year-old in Houston was told the spaghetti-strap dress she wore during the summer was too revealing, and she was sent home wearing a T-shirt over it and jeans underneath it. “We still live in a country where someone can decide the shoulders of – and I can’t stress this enough – a 5-year-old girl are so distracting that they must be sent away and decently hidden,” her father, Jef Rouner, wrote in an op-ed for Houston Press.
Of course, things don’t get easier after kindergarten. In 2017, a 17-year-old girl, Sophia Abuabara, argued with her principal about the number of inches above her knee where the hemline of her dress landed. Abuabara said she’d used a ruler, but the principal disagreed with the measurement, ultimately telling the student’s mother that he was protecting her from all the “lewd comments” the boys would make.
“It was all very sexual in nature,” her mother Rosey told PEOPLE. “Why don’t you teach the boys not to be like that? Why is it the girls who have to comply but the boys are okay?”
Even a floor-length formal dress (that exposed the student’s shoulders), a pair of opaque leggings worn by an 11-year-old (which the school decided were too revealing) and a student in a long-sleeved sweater dress (in which she was forced to kneel against a ruler to measure the distance to the floor) have all caused young women to be pulled out of class and even sent home for dress code violations, raising nationwide questions about whether it’s worse for a female student to miss out on their education in order not to run the risk of “distracting” the boys around her.
RELATED VIDEO: High School Girl Pulled Out of Class Due to Dress Code: ‘It’s a Sexist Policy,’ Mom Says
Roth has also noticed that students with a “curvier body type” are more likely to have their clothing called out than “thinner students.” One student, told that “because I look like a CURVY woman and may distract young boys, I have to miss class and change my outfit,” joined the legions of students who protested by wearing T-shirts that address the issue, including the phrase “NOT A DISTRACTION.”
So what’s a parent to do? Explain to your children that they have protected rights to express themselves appropriately, and “encourage them to speak up,” Roth suggests. “Parents should know that both the constitution and civil rights laws prohibit this kind of discrimination.”
And when talking to your kids, depending on their age, putting it simply is best. “Under the law, their school cannot treat boys and girls differently,” Ross explains. “If your teacher or principal keeps pulling girls out of the classroom and not boys, that’s preventing you from learning on the same terms as the boys.”
In addition, Roth stresses students with disabilities, students who need to wear a specific article of clothing for a religious reason, and LGBT students are covered, too. “Trans and gender-nonconforming students have the right to wear clothing that aligns with their gender expression,” she adds.
A definite upside to these stories spreading? More student activism. Just ask the 17-year-old boy who wore a crop top to school as a social experiment. He wasn’t punished.