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One of the most politically charged policies for high school students is dress code, and for good reason. As students enter this stage of their lives, they’ve blazed past adolescence and want to be treated like adults. According to Erikson, they’ve also entered the psychosocial stage of Identity vs. Confusion, trying to find their place in the world compared to their peers and parents. Expression though clothing permits them to do that.
With that expression comes many responsibilities, and since they’re children, they’re not always ready to meet them. Case in point is at the homecoming high school dance at the high school in my district. Here, students employed a tradition to dress up like pimps and prostitutes. The district clamped down on the egregious apparel, and rightfully so. It was wrong. Though the students carped and criticized the new rules, they complied or they weren’t permitted to enter.
What the district did next is a short order of guidelines all districts should follow when it comes to developing a school dress code:
1. Have students, teachers, administrators, and parents work together to draft the rules. This seems like an obvious first step, as all four parties will have to have buy in for the new rules or they’ll soon fall to bits. Students can begin to protest the rules and turn something deemed a distraction into political discord. Teachers need rules they feel comfortable enforcing. Administrators need discipline that directly state what happens to violators. Lastly, parents need to feel like the enforcement isn’t Big Brothering their ability to make decisions for their child, and is in line with the values expected by the community.
2. Make the rules easy to follow. Some school districts spend hours and pages dedicated to making a list of dress code rules that make Martin Luther’s 99 Theses look like sticky note. The rules should be easy enough to put on a poster board or, at most, on the front and back of a printed piece of paper.
3. Keep the rules from becoming Draconian. Named for the first ruler of Athens to write the rules on wooden tablet, Draco was known for having a list of minor offenses that would receive the death penalty, including stealing food. Shamokin School District (of Pennsylvania) is experimenting with a pretty harsh dress code, which includes stipulations such as dictating hair color, style, and piercings, keeping shoes and shoelaces the same color, as well as shorts and dresses that don’t go above the kneecap. When I get to school, I want to teach. And while I don’t want clothing to get in the way of learning, I also don’t want harsh rules like these to impede my classroom, too. I couldn’t imagine being a teacher here trying to police these rules.
4. Permit the students to have some form of expression. Students want to feel like they belong to a group, and a large part of that includes what they wear. It should be our social responsibility to help them unearth who they truly are, even if that makes us a bit uncomfortable. Much of that involves accepting their ability to invididualize themselves, but also to make school a safe place where they want to be. That is a careful balance. However, Duncanville High School (of Texas) forgot about that and made school a place of revile and, consequentially, the students fiercely protested the rules.
5. If a violation ends up in the news, make sure the district is prepared to come out on top. Some of the most recent and notably dress code violations have ended up in the news. You can see some of them here. Notice which ones the district is easy to argue and win (such as ripped jeans where one can see a student’s genitals) to the ridiculous (in Oklahoma City, students a Kindergartener was suspended for wearing a University of Michigan jersey because only Oklahoma U. apparel is permitted).
Another school district near me (Upper Dauphin, PA) suspended 3 cheerleaders – one in the middle of her test – for wearing leggings under a football jersey. While the girls wore their "offensive gear" on TV, the superintendent refused to comment.
6. Give at least a year’s notice if the school district has adopted a school uniform. I'm personally opposed to uniforms as a violation of free speech, but for some districts, clothing – especially gang-related wear – is just too distracting, especially when attempts to regulate it becomes fruitless. The next and final step is to turn to a school uniform. That said, schools need to give at least a full year’s notice if they plan to implement such a strategy. That’s because clothing is expensive, and if the parent spends the summer shopping for their child only to later learn they’re unable to wear those clothes to school, that becomes an issue. Being proactive can eliminate that.
Distractions of all types have no place in the classroom. Some are brought by students, which include forms of dress. Others should not be brought by the district, which includes their reaction to them.