No-one likes being told what they can or cannot wear including many of today’s elementary, middle and high school students.
School systems across the nation have adopted dress codes including Middlesex County Public Schools. Supporters of school dress codes argue that strict dress guidelines have a positive impact on students, promote school safety, improve self-esteem and are in the best interests of the student. Even the U.S. Department of Education has weighed in on the topic and acknowledges the benefits of school dress codes. There are even cases where a student has gone as far as to sue the school district over a matter of dress, stating that dress codes are unconstitutional. Clearly, the adoption and administration of school dress policy is a hot topic for families everywhere.
Whether a proponent or an adversary, dress code confusion can pit parent against child in an uncomfortable battle that can set an unpleasant tone for the school day. There is a reason this conversation is so difficult; it involves issues of self image, freedom of expression, and gender politics all wrapped up in an argument at 7:00 in the morning.
The dress code debate is not a new one. Back in the sixties, dress codes choices were sometimes politically motivated such as black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War. Such attire was protected under the 1st Amendment of the US Constitution. In the early seventies, girls were required to kneel down on the floor to ascertain if their skirts were long enough to touch the ground. As society changed, we developed new norms. Gone are the days when schools forbade girls from wearing pants and required boys to press their trousers. Today, more than half of American schools have some sort of dress code; however, those policies vary drastically between schools, districts, and states. This can be especially confusing for families that change schools. To complicate matters, there is no gold standard for what is acceptable attire in school. For most of today’s students, dress code grievances are probably not politically motivated, but are more certainly driven by their desire for self expression, which is a trickier line to navigate. Some students try to express something with their clothing choices, but it’s not like they are shouting in a language that everyone understands. Boys may choose baggy pants and hoodies because they are comfortable and want to express their fondness of hip hop, but to others those outfits scream ‘thug.’ Girls run into a similar disconnect between what they feel they are portraying with their outfit selection and how their peers and adults perceive them. In an ideal world all people could dress any way they want to, but dressing in a certain way can send out messages that puts students at risk. While a student’s choice of attire should not drive anyone’s actions toward that individual; unfortunately, it does have an impact on the way others perceive them which can lead to undesirable results.
Supporters of a strict dress code argue that without it inappropriate clothing will be worn in school. This can cause unnecessary distraction that is counterproductive to learning. They feel a school is not a club; it’s a place for education. Students should dress appropriately for the opportunity to learn. The same outfit on two different individuals may yield two totally different connotations. A detailed dress code removes the subjectivity of the rule enforcer whether it be a parent, a teacher or a school administrator and makes it easier for him or her to determine what the student is allowed to wear.
But even enforcing a detailed dress code is a sticky situation for adults. For example, the school says that shorts must extend past the tips of the fingertips, but your daughter insists that nobody follows the rules. Families with boys are not necessarily spared these arguments either as many want to wear saggy pants while the school requires that waistlines be hitched firmly above the hips. To their credit, students are not always wrong when they say that others get away with breaking the rules. Many schools employ the fingertip rule for skirts and shorts, and yet they also permit cheerleaders and volleyball players to wear extremely short skirts and shorts to games. This contradiction in rules can raise eyebrows and irritate students and parents.
School dress code policies often fluctuate from year to year as administrators attempt to keep up with ever-changing fashion trends. The popularity of skin-tight leggings, for instance, has prompted some schools to write new rules that spell out whether or not girls will be permitted to wear them as pants or if they need to wear a long shirt, skirt, or shorts over them. That means that an outfit that was permitted last year, may not be acceptable this year. Again, students and parents feel out of the loop as to what is and is not allowed.
Opponents of strict dress codes feel schools ought to consider what issues they are really trying to address and critically examine whether or not policing attire will realistically accomplish those goals. Many schools say that their policies have been constructed to promote respect and minimize disruption in the school environment. Some feel schools should focus more on discussion of respectful actions rather than spending time policing attire. They feel if schools are working to prepare children to become functional members of society, shouldn’t school policies simply mirror the unwritten public dress code. We already have public standards of decency and indecent exposure. Why shouldn’t those same standards apply in the school system?
We must remember that our youth gleans societal messages from many different sources. A survey of acceptable outfits worn around town to the local mall, the gas station, and football games will produce one image of what is acceptable attire versus the constant flood of images of scantily clad pop and movie stars that follow our children everywhere they go and paint a very different picture of the allowed norm. Those messages from pop-culture ring much louder for children than any implied public code. School enforced dress codes can help to alleviate some of the pressures that children feel to dress a certain way and can offer parents some guidelines to fall back upon.
And so the Great Dress Code Debate rages on…
The MCPS dress code can be found on pages 40 and 41 of the MCPS 2015-2016 Family Handbook.