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School districts loosen dress codes after gender-bias complaints

WARDROBE FUNCTIONS—Evanston Township High School District relaxed its dress code after students protested, saying the rules unfairly targeted girls. No disruptions due to students’ clothing choices have occurred since the change.
WARDROBE FUNCTIONS—Evanston Township High School District relaxed its dress code after students protested, saying the rules unfairly targeted girls. No disruptions due to students’ clothing choices have occurred since the change.

“Don’t blame boys’ bad behavior on the way we dress.” That’s the message—first delivered by a group of female high school students—that led Santa Fe Public Schools in New Mexico to adjust its dress code in spring 2018.

“We had several young ladies who felt the dress code was somewhat sexist, and that it was more punitive toward young women,” Superintendent Veronica Garcia says. “They also felt like it was body shaming, as some girls might be allowed to wear a certain kind of top, but if girls were heavier, they might not be allowed to wear the same thing.”

Time better spent

A committee, led by the district’s director of student wellness, surveyed principals, teachers and parents about potential changes. Garcia also held meetings with central-office and school-based administrators in developing the new policy. Ultimately, the district removed the words “boys” and “girls” from its dress code, and simplified the requirements.

For instance, the new code says a shirt must have “fabric in the front, back and on the sides, under the arms.” Students must wear pants, dresses or an equivalent, such as a skirt, sweatpants, leggings or shorts. The less-restrictive rules put the onus on families to ensure students dress appropriately.

Garcia says educators have more pressing matters to contend with than sending a student home to change or measuring clothing.

“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.”

No more ‘little battles’

Santa Fe joins a growing number of other districts, such as Portland Public Schools in Oregon and Evanston Township High School District 202 near Chicago, that have adjusted dress codes after complaints from female students.

When a few hundred Evanston High School students staged a sit-in outside the superintendent’s office last year, they won the right to wear (almost) whatever they want.

Since the beginning of the 2017-18 school year, the newly approved clothing includes 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.

For students who do not ascribe to binary genders, Evanston also removed words such as “boys” and “girls” from its dress code, says Principal Marcus Campbell, who also serves as the high school district’s assistant superintendent.

“We had students who over the past several years thought the dress code was unfair, that it targeted girls and that it wasn’t body positive,” Campbell says. “Our students got our attention by protesting, by saying enough was enough with body-shaming.”

Previously, shorts had to be a certain length and shoulders had to be covered. The high school of about 3,700 students has implemented a model dress code created by the Oregon Chapter of the National Organization of Women.

“Not a single thing about the school day has changed,” Campbell says. “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,” he adds. “Students feel free to be themselves.” 

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