“Two, four, six, eight! Give us a policy before it’s too late!”
What started as a student protest to change the dress code at a Canadian high school turned into a much-needed discussion of sexual harassment—and has led to the drafting of a new district-wide policy that covers both issues.
The chant was a rallying cry at the protest, organized by members of Fredericton Youth Feminists last November at Fredericton High School in New Brunswick, which garnered media attention after 25 protesters were slammed with three-day suspensions from school and suspension from extracurricular activities for the remainder of the school year. When the students voiced their grievances in a documentary by the CBC’s Jaques Poitras, they spoke about how gender politics of school dress codes contribute to sexual harassment and rape culture.
Fredericton’s dress code policy ambiguously requires students to dress in “modest” clothes—phrasing that even David McTimoney, the superintendent of the Anglophone West School District which governs Fredericton High, admitted can be problematic. Many young women students felt that the language in this policy granted individual teachers leeway to interpret the rules to different extents, resulting in a disproportionate singling out of those wearing “sheer shirts” or “visible bra straps.” The young women attributed these guidelines to the omnipresent culture of seeing women’s bodies as objects designed for the male gaze. Revealing “too much” skin is thus considered “dangerous” for women simply because it may be distracting to males.
This sort of dress-code philosophy is ingrained in many schools across the world. Any exposure of a young women’s thighs, midriffs, chests and even shoulders are considered “unprofessional” when they’re not driving boys away from their studies. The protesters at Fredericton High questioned the fairness of these rules, asking, Why are bra straps unprofessional? Short skirts are distracting to whom?
Further, they felt that the dress-code restrictions perpetuated victim-blaming, and that it was of more importance to discuss the school’s lack of a sexual harassment policy. When Fredericton’s vice principal told senior Sorcha Beirne that her shirt was too revealing, Beirne attempted to discuss such concerns with the school’s principal, Shane Thomas, but he “had no interest in listening to me.”
Although the dress code conversation sparked a dialogue between students and administrators about a culture that subtly condones sexual harassment and rape, the school refused to budge with regard to its “modest” policy. However, the administration at Fredericton has finally begun the process of revising its perspective. McTimoney told CBC News in mid-February that although the dress code policy will remain the same, school administrators will partner with students to draft a sexual harassment and sexual assault policy.
Principal Thomas finally sat down with students and learned firsthand of instances in which they’d been harassed. One student recounted that, after complaining to administrators about being repeatedly hollered at in the hallway by male students, she was met with the comment, “You shouldn’t have been wearing that shirt.” Fredericton senior, Emilia Deil, remembers a breakthrough during these interactions:
Him just even listening to us and encouraging us and telling us that he wanted to work with us and work through this, and understand—you could tell he genuinely cared at that point and genuinely wanted to do something about the issue, rather than just dismiss it.
Although policies have not yet been officially altered, Thomas has expressed a deeper understanding of why the young women felt targeted and unsafe:
It certainly is a learning curve for those of us on the other side of the table. Because you don’t know what all of the students are going through.
The school administration has already partnered with the Fredericton Sexual Assault Crisis Center to organize a sexual assault response team at the high school. There are also tentative plans to establish a chapter of the White Ribbon campaign, which encourages men to raise awareness about violence against women. The conversation about drafting a finalized sexual harassment policy continues within Fredericton High still continues.
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