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One small, shy child changed my school’s dress code

Sometimes, students can help administrators gain new perspective

So often, when children attempt to advocate for something they believe in at school, adults make the mistake of getting defensive and worse, stand by the mantra that “This is the way things are,” without ever examining why they are the way they are. Last spring, as the weather warmed in New Jersey, we announced and reposted our dress code. Rather than the usual murmurs and griping about fairness we often hear among middle-school adolescents, an interesting thing happened.

The morning after a Board of Education meeting, I was notified that something important had happened. A child unknown to me other than the timid smile she would flash at me in the hall as I greeted her and other students with a “Good morning!” had stood before the Board of Education at a public and televised meeting, advocating for a more equitable dress code in our school. Armed with a petition signed by hundreds of students, she came prepared. When I learned about this, I was motivated to ask why, and to revisit our dress code. Indeed, there was wording in it that was clearly directed at female students. No wonder they were petitioning; the dress code was not gender neutral, nor was it gender equitable.

I began to explore this under the current media coverage of the #MeToo movement and other rights groups standing up for female, and more specifically, gender equitable rights. I was fascinated not only by the degree of press coverage on this, but also by movements of pioneering school districts in places like Oregon and California.

The one that had the most significant impact on me was “Oregon NOW.” In 2015, female students appealed in a well-prepared and passionate declaration to their Board of Education. The board of education and superintendent subsequently worked with the administration and staff to revise the dress code AND to educate staff, parents, and students about it. The student’s nine-minute presentation, which was televised, is worth a watch. Born were common phrases like, “I am not a distraction.” I was fascinated as I examined our dress code and realized it was not gender neutral. It was only a matter of time before this moved beyond the “it’s not fair” argument to one of substance and heart.

There were two main concerns with our former dress code. First, it listed disciplinary action before the guidelines. This immediately signaled a negative undertone that dress code was primarily disciplinary, rather than an opportunity to address it as a learning experience. Compliance was the expectation. However, the most effective and motivating educators are those that do not force students to comply, but rather help students understand that there is value in something, and take part in it. On par with a fight in the hall, our dress code was written to suggest that it had to foster compliance from students.

Second, the first two items listed in our previous dress code were clearly scripted for female students, again suggesting that the order was an issue, as if these were the most important so they were first. Worse that it was directed at one gender. Here’s what it said, standing as item 1 and item 2:

  1. Clothing must cover the front and the back of the student (off-the-shoulder tops, tops with spaghetti straps, bare midriffs, halter tops, and tank tops are not permitted).
  2. Shorts or skirts must not be too short or too tight fitting.

The rest of the dress code was not specific to gender. But again, these were the first two items listed and no other item was male-specific. Herein lies the problem.

Oregon NOW does an excellent job of maintaining that a dress code is necessary, but it must be fair and sensible. Something students see value and take part in. Safety, non-offensive wording, and gender-neutral descriptions of length, size, etc., are the prerequisite to a gender-neutral dress code.

This summer, after my research, I revised our dress code, determined to remove any gender-specific items and foster a fair and equitable dress code. I involved people in the school community and advised my superintendent. Today, the new dress code begins immediately with this:

Hammarskjold Middle School encourages all students to be able to dress comfortably for school without fear of or disruption to their learning process.

The importance here is that the learning process will not be disrupted, a key tenant of Oregon Now. Dress code should not be on par with fighting or other serious infractions. Additionally, the wording about size and space now reads as:

Basic Principle: Certain body parts must be covered for all students.

Our dress code goes on to address safety, offensive language, and exposure of undergarments—all in gender-neutral language. Never again is a description geared specifically to female attire, and the emphasis is on safety as well as a respectful, non-offensive standard.

I grew up with three brothers, surrounded by testosterone. I have since been blessed with two daughters, now 11 and 14 years old. My daughters have brought this kind of sensitivity to me, and not just about dress code. Indeed, dress code is an extension of a broader issue that has gained national attention. My eyes have widened as a teacher, administrator, and father of girls about just what fair treatment stands for with female students.

I was influenced by what one small, shy child did, and thanks to children like her, my school’s dress code is better worded and managed for all of my students. If you are wondering about your own dress code, check out the Oregon NOW Model Student Dress Code. Then, think about the influence you can have with some subtle, yet significant, shifts to the language in your own dress code.

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