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No students safe from irrational school dress codes. Not even 4-year-olds.

It's early in the school year but there are already reports of overzealous enforcement of dress code policies.

School dress codes are arbitrary, and enforcement is spotty. What a 60-year-old male principal finds risqué may seem Sunday church wear to a 30-year-old assistant principal.

I still don't understand why schools pursue dress code violations to the point of yanking girls from class for displaying too much shoulder. Leave wardrobe decisions to parents.

In one local high school last year, a male administrator came to classes and asked girls to turn around so he could inspect them from behind. He flagged dresses as modest as this loose-fitting tunic in the photo.

Dress codes foster the dangerous notion that girls are responsible for what boys think and do. Almost all dress codes target girls, even outlawing their collar bones, as a Kentucky high school did.

Dress codes also censor hair styles for reasons that defy reason. Why, for example, is long hair a distraction or danger on a boy and not a girl?

In Texas, a school barred a 4-year-old from kindergarten this week due to the length of his hair. The Barbers Hill Independent School District requires boys' hair be above the eyes and ears and neck. Parent Jessica Oates is challenging the ruling, using the rationale her little boy's long hair reflects the family's Cocopah Indian heritage. (This is one of the first stories I have read  in which a dress code sent a boy home.)

Oates shouldn't have to cite any reason. If her son's hair is not impeding other students' ability to learn or endangering them, why should it matter? There has been a rash of dress code citations against black girls for wearing dreadshead wraps or having natural hair. (Here is a good NPR story on one such case.) The reasoning in those cases is also incomprehensible.

In South Carolina, a principal of a high school set off a furor this week with a comment to female students about leggings: “I’m going to tell you now, unless you are a size zero or two and you wear something like that, you look fat.”

Stratford High School parents took to Facebook to criticize the comment. One mom recalled getting the same admonishment as a teen: "A long time ago, when I was in high school, we wanted to wear blue jeans to school and we were told that not everybody looked good in them, that they made us (girls) look fat."

Closer to home, North Atlanta High School students are opposing their school's dress code in a petition, also citing a war there on leggings.

More than a thousand people have signed the petition, in which a student explains:

It was the first eight days of school, and already hundreds of girls have been dress coded, including myself. And for what specifically? Leggings. Shoulders. Ripped Jeans.

Last year I could walk into school and around the halls with the exact same outfit on and no one would say a word to me. This year all you see in the hallway is girls getting dress coded. NAHS is setting unclear rules and, frankly, ridiculous ones.

Let's make one thing clear: I do NOT wear leggings to show off my butt, I wear them to be COMFORTABLE in a stressful and sometimes uncomfortable environment. It is not my intention to be a "distraction."

The handbook states, "All students shall dress appropriately so as not to disrupt or interfere with the educational program or the orderly operation at school."

The girls’ clothes are not the part that is disrupting operations in school; it is the administrator pulling them over in the halls, or out of class.

When a girl gets dress coded, every other girl in the school hears out about it and that’s what creates the distraction. Reprimanding females for dress code gives the notion they are responsible for prioritizing boys' focus in school. Our school system is so focused on boys’ education that they are willing to take females out of important classes and give them a disciplinary action for dress code. This disciplinary action (ISS) may be the same action given to those who start fights, skip, or bring drugs into school. The way the school system has set up these dress codes is disrespectful and unfair to females everywhere. Instead of shaming girls for their bodies and clothing, the school should be teaching boys that girls are not to be sexualized.

A change needs to happen with North Atlanta's dress code. Girls need to be equally treated. If girls are getting dress coded for outfits that cover all their skin, than boys -- who sag their pants or wear shorter shorts than girls -- need to be dress coded too. If my mom doesn't see anything wrong with my outfit, neither should the school. We, the girls of North Atlanta High School, want to be able to come to school in comfortable clothes and not be ridiculed.

Many of the students signing the petition shared their own experiences since returning to the APS high school earlier this month, including a young woman cited for leggings and a T-shirt.

I was told the other day by a teacher that what I was wearing was inappropriate. I politely asked her how and she responded by saying "Do you see me wearing that? Do you see me coming to school wearing that outfit? No. You don't. We're trying to get you ready for the real work world."

You're kidding me right? That's some kind of sick joke. Just because you don't wear it to your job doesn't mean I can't wear it to school. You and I have no correlation. I am simply here to learn and that is ALL. Not to get pulled over in the halls every day and be told what I am wearing is basically disgusting and flat-out unacceptable because it is NOT.

Here is the problem with the teacher's statement: Boys in North Atlanta High are not being advised to don future bank manager attire. By the way, has anyone ever visited tech startup companies with their ping-pong tables, kombucha tea and meditation rooms? Hardly anyone in those places dresses up. (Hardly anyone is over 40, either.) They wear the same torn jeans, leggings and T-shirts they sported in college and high school. Their wardrobes don't seem to be holding them back.

North Atlanta High parent Lisa Mason shared a letter she sent to school and district leaders, in which she pointed out the inherent sexism of dress codes:

The students at NAHS barely have enough time during class changes to get to their classes. Now female students are either being made late to class (or in some cases pulled out of class) to enforce these antiquated and biased policies.

Administrators should be picking their battles with these kids, and it surely shouldn't be about how they look. How about starting with basic respect in the classroom? For their peers and teachers. How about some education on gender equality and sexual safety? Please take this matter seriously. You are sending the wrong message to all these kids, girls and boys.

Mason says the school has been easing up on violations, which is good news.

I asked APS about the dress code. In a statement tonight, the district said:  "After listening to concerns, North Atlanta administrators adjusted their enforcement of the policy to minimize disruptions and to honor students feedback around how the policy was being enforced. The administration is having ongoing conversations with students and parents about the rationale for certain aspects of the policy around which students expressed concerns. Administrators are optimistic they will find a path forward that ensures adherence to the expectations of appropriate dress while honoring the desire for individual expression and student voice. "

Girls are entitled to the same freedom as boys to dress in comfortable clothing and to walk the hallways without worrying their bodies are under constant surveillance for possible violations. Girls are not distractions in school to be obscured; they are students.




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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.