School dress codes continue to generate controversy

Complaints about bias persist while some leaders give students more leeway
By: | October 7, 2019
Students around the country are pushing back against administrators over school dress codes that some young people see as unfair to females. (gettyimages.com: Halfpoint)Students around the country are pushing back against administrators over school dress codes that some young people see as unfair to females. (gettyimages.com: Halfpoint)

Dress codes in Washington, D.C., public schools continue to disproportionately impact black girls, according to “Dress Coded II: Protest, Progress, and Power in D.C. Schools,” a just-released report by the National Women’s Law Center.

The report found, for instance, that majority-black high schools have more dress code restrictions than other high schools in the district.

“Students, educators, and policymakers are making incredible progress, but schools continue to discriminate against Black girls by banning forms of expression that pose no threat, and reinforce rape culture,” Nia Evans, author and lead researcher of the report, said in a statement. “Even if schools state that their aim is to remain gender neutral, by targeting clothing worn mostly by girls, they are policing their bodies by labeling them as ‘distracting’ and disrupting their ability to learn.”

The report follows a 2018 study, “Dress Coded: Black Girls, Bodies, and Bias in D.C. Schools,” which focused on the experiences of 21 students who felt they were targeted unfairly by dress codes. The update finds that some progress has been made:

  • The district may convene a parent-led dress code task force.
  • The Council of the District of Columbia passed a bill that prohibits out-of-school suspensions for minor infractions, including dress code violations.
  • Students remain active, organizing walkouts, meeting with government officials and testifying at council hearings.

In Sacramento, students returning to class told CBS Sacramento that their new high school’s stricter dress code would affect girls far more than boys.

Elsewhere, a USA Today Network-Wisconsin analysis of more than 20 state dress codes found more rules apply to girls, according to the Wausau Daily Herald. And one childhood expert told NEA Today that telling female students their clothing is distracting implies that they’re at fault if a male student responds inappropriately.

School dress codes loosened in some places

Some districts have loosened dress codes in response to complaints from, in most cases, female students, DA reported last year.

In 2018, Santa Fe Public Schools in New Mexico removed the words “boys” and “girls” from its dress codes and simplified other requirements. The less-restrictive rules put the onus on families to ensure students dress appropriately because educators have more pressing matters to contend with, Superintendent Veronica Garcia told DA.


Read more from DA: School districts loosen dress codes after gender-bias complaints


“We’ve had issues, just like the whole country, around safety and bullying and the mental health of students,” Garcia says. “Principals and counselors need to spend more time on those issues; we’re not into seeing if a skirt is longer than your fingertips.”

Evanston Township High School District 202 near Chicago also loosened its dress codes after complaints from female students. In Evanston, students can now wear tube tops, hoodies and hats—as long as there’s no offensive language or accessories, such as spikes or chains, that can be used as a weapon.

“Not a single thing about the school day has changed,” Principal Marcus Campbell told DA at the time. “But we no longer have the little battles over taking off a hat or pulling kids out of class and calling parents because their shorts are too short.”

“Students feel free to be themselves,” he adds.