Five Dos and Don’ts When Revising School Dress Codes

After a school official digitally raised dozens of girls’ necklines after deeming the students’ tops immodest, the U.S. Department of Education has launched an investigation into a complaint that the code and its enforcement discriminate against girls. (News4JAX — YouTube)

The Florida school district that doctored yearbook photos of girls without consent last spring by covering their cleavage has pledged to do better. The St. Johns County School Board announced last week that they have revised their dress code. Now, students of any gender are permitted to bare their shoulders, and their shorts, skirts and dresses can hit mid-thigh.  

While Bartram Trail High School was widely ridiculed for altering the yearbook photos of girls but not boys, controversy had been brewing for some time because of the district’s gendered dress code. At the mandatory monthly Dress for Success Day, in which students are graded, girls have to follow far more guidelines than boys. The U.S. Department of Education has launched an investigation into a complaint that the code and its enforcement discriminate against girls.

Other school districts should pay attention to the process underway at the St. Johns County School Board and learn from their successes and failures. In particular, districts should keep in mind these five suggestions.

DO listen to students.

The St. Johns County School Board revised its dress code after distributing an online survey to the community last month. The board also took public comments from students and parents. This is the right move; students should always be centered in conversations about the clothes they may wear.

DON’T have separate rules based on gender.

Currently, the district’s dress code has three sections: for all students, boys and girls. Breaking down the rules based on gender nearly always leads to discrimination against girls. As the ACLU Women’s Rights Project and the ACLU of Florida noted in a letter to the board, the district’s Dress for Success program is discriminatory because its guidelines for boys is “short and simple.” Girls, on the other hand, have a long list of prohibitions, including wearing skirts or dresses that “cling to [her] body and show [her] shape,” shirts that are “tight” and “show cleavage” and “big hair accessories.” They also must “wear a color-coordinated cardigan” if their dress or shirt is sleeveless. 

The ACLU points out that any girl who fails to comply with the guidelines gets an F, while a boy is punished with a grade of B. 

DO be practical.

Students and parents have pushed back against the newly revised dress code because even though it’s an improvement, it is out of touch with the reality of the clothes that are available.

“I’m only 5-foot-6-inches, and the inseam requirement to reach my mid-thigh would be around six inches, and I’ve never seen women’s shorts with a six-inch inseam,” said sophomore Riley O’Keefe. “While the newly developed dress code is a step in the right direction, it’s not fair and equal as it should be.”

DON’T let gender stereotypes get in the way of gender equity.

Sex-specific dress codes presume that girls’ bodies are inherently distracting to other students and teachers, reinforcing a harmful stereotype. This way of thinking leads to blaming victims of sexual harassment and assault for “asking for it.” 

DO emulate the Evanston, Illinois, dress code.

School boards should strive to imitate the gold-standard dress code devised by Evanston Township High School, which does not reinforce gendered or racialized stereotypes. Learners are referred to as “students”; there are no references to “girls” or “boys.”

To be truly equitable, school boards need to stop thinking in binary, gendered categories. Students are just people who, while they are learning, want to be comfortable and express their personal style. Even a first-grade student could tell you that. 

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Leora Tanenbaum coined the term "slut-bashing"—the precursor to the term "slut-shaming"—in 1999. In her most recent project, she chronicles dress-coding on Instagram. Her latest book, I Am Not a Slut: Slut-Shaming in the Age of the Internet, offers a fresh perspective on the phenomenon of teenage girls and young women labeling each other "sluts" and "hos." It has been named one of 11 "groundbreaking books about women making history." Currently the editor-in-chief of Catalyst, Tanenbaum lives in New York City.