A few months ago, someone scrawled this provocative message on the wall of a girls’ bathroom stall at a high school in Corona: I can get sent home for a tank top, but a guy can sexually assault me on campus and nothing happens.
I wasn’t surprised when my daughter, a sophomore in high school, showed me a picture of the note. For months, I had heard how vulnerable she and her friends felt to the whims of school staff inspecting and commenting on their clothes and bodies as they enforced the dress code every day. Meanwhile, my eldest son and his male friends went through four years of high school without feeling overly scrutinized by school officials.
It turns out that students from other schools around the country have similar experiences. An investigation by the US Government Accountability Office late last year found that many school dress codes have created unsafe and inequitable conditions, possibly violating students’ civil rights that guarantee equal treatment. And the Supreme Court is considering weighing in on a 2019 ruling by the 4th Circuit Court overturning a requirement of North Carolina charter schools that girls wear skirts or dresses. Students at the school say the requirement is discriminatory and sends the message that girls are inferior to boys.
As parents, we expect our sons and daughters to be treated equally if they attend a public school, as guaranteed by the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution and Title IX , a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination in schools or education programs that receive federal funding. Yet girls are often unfairly targeted by school administrators nationwide who sometimes enforce arbitrary dress restrictions.
California and other states give local districts wide latitude in creating and implementing dress codes to promote school safety and discipline. California’s education code, for example, specifically cites gang badges in the section granting schools the right to set rules regarding dress.
School districts regulate much more than potentially gang-related clothing, with rules stating, for example, that leggings can only be worn with a skirt, dress or long shirt and specifying the length of skirts, tops and dresses. Dress codes circumvent anti-discrimination laws by regulating clothing for all students rather than creating separate rules for girls and boys. Many administrators have the right to send students home, or even suspend them, if students wear clothing they deem inappropriate.
In my children’s high school, control begins at the school gates. The mostly male security guards assess the girls’ outfits, especially their tops, as they pass. Among the prohibited garments are spaghetti straps, tank tops, crop tops and low necklines. Some girls are told to zip up their sweatshirts if they are wearing one. Others are taken to the main office to speak to an assistant manager and for possible disciplinary action. A teacher tells girls in her class who wear crop tops not to dress like prostitutes.
Treating students in such a dehumanizing way has no place in any school. However, according to the GAO, nearly half of all public schools nationwide enforce strict dress codes, and these policies tend to include more rules for girls than for boys. Additionally, the GAO found that schools with higher percentages of Latino and Black students are more likely to enforce strict dress codes.
Civil rights groups have fought school dress codes in several states in recent years. In one such Florida case, the American Civil Liberties Union in 2018 accused Manatee School District officials of violating the rights of Lizzy Martinez, a high school student who was disciplined for not wearing a bra under her shirt. due to a painful sunburn. An administrator asked Martinez to wear bandages instead, then asked him to get up and move around while looking at his chest.
An ACLU spokeswoman explained that school dress codes are problematic because there is so much variation in how policies are formulated and how they are enforced. Too often codes promote gender stereotypes and disproportionately affect groups based on their ethnic, religious or cultural affiliation. In Caldwell, Idaho, Latino community leaders say a local school dress code is unfairly affecting Latino students because a student was asked to remove or return her sweatshirt with the words Brown Pride.
The Los Angeles Unified School District allows its schools to create their own dress codes, although it requires that they be gender-neutral and in accordance with district policy. However, not all do. For example, Garfield Senior High School prohibits clothing that includes revealing or low-cut tops and warns that students could be sent home for violations.
Despite so many cases and complaints made public, school districts continue to enforce unfair rules. As a result of the GAO investigation, the US Department of Education agreed to draft guidelines to prevent unlawful discrimination based on dress codes. In addition, federal education officials are currently seeking public input on types of informal referrals and other similar data to determine how to frame questions for a future study to gauge how often students waste class time for these violations.
As a parent, I think such an emphasis on girls’ outfits is detrimental to the learning environment. At a time when many students are struggling with mental health issues and pandemic-induced learning difficulties, administrators should use their time to help students with their studies, without wasting class time on because of discriminatory dress codes. School districts should revise these rules or discard them.