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Challenge: Open Discussion

If your school's dress code is broken, your kid can help fix it

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For many parents, getting their child into a dress-code-compliant outfit is an unwelcome daily struggle. Students often perceive dress codes as out-of-touch, and frustrated caregivers may secretly wonder what message is being delivered when their child is told their skirt is distracting or their hoodie is menacing. With school pictures, prom, and other clothing-focused school events coming this spring, here are four steps to understanding (and perhaps changing!) your school’s dress code.

Step 1: Review your school’s dress code: you might be surprised at what you find.

Most caregivers don’t read the dress code closely until they’ve received a call from the school office, but these unexamined rules often codify racism, sexism, and other long-held biases.

While researching for my middle grade novel, Margie Kelly Breaks the Dress Code, I discovered that my own school district prohibited “skirts that distract,” a shockingly sexist and subjective standard. Although our dress code has since been updated with more inclusive standards, many schools continue to categorize clothing or hairstyles as “disruptive” based on a student’s gender expression or racial identity. Dress codes can also discriminate based on body-type, with words like “revealing” classifying identical items as acceptable on thin bodies and inappropriate on full-figured ones.

You might also notice that punishments for dress code violations are unreasonably severe. It seems obvious that a student shouldn’t lose a day of learning for spaghetti straps. Some schools, ignorant of the harm caused by shaming students, force dress-code violators to change into embarrassingly oversized items.

However, you might be pleasantly surprised. Your school may follow more inclusive guidelines, like those developed by the Oregon chapter of the National Organization for Women.

Step 2: Be mindful of others.

Your child’s clothing and grooming choices might not be impacted by their dress code, but what of their peers? Despite federal laws prohibiting discrimination in education, arbitrary distinctions are often made between male and female students, like allowing boys to wear sleeveless tops and not girls. Requirements for hair length can discriminate against cultural hairstyles, especially for Black and indigenous communities (now the subject of legislation in over a dozen states). Students who are gender nonconforming are often called out for not presenting in a traditional manner, usually at important social events like prom or homecoming. Some schools may still ban religious headwear for athletes, despite updated rules by national sports associations. Part of building a strong school community is supporting the needs of all students, even when your student isn’t the one impacted.

Step 3: Find the right person to address your concerns.

While your first instinct may be to request changes to the dress code from your campus principal, keep in mind that in most cases, the school district sets the dress code. Look for opportunities to address your local school board members; most offer an open session prior to meetings. That said, even at the campus level, consider sharing your concerns with your school community through a parent-teacher association or campus advisory council. Find other families and staff members who share your goals and will amplify your desire for change.

Smaller changes can also have an outsized impact. For example, if your school’s choir requires a gendered uniform in which female students must wear dresses, talk to the choir teacher and ask that more options be made available. If your child is uncomfortable wearing spandex shorts as part of the volleyball team, you might bring up the recent movement in women’s professional sports for more inclusive uniforms.

Step 4: Support your student as they advocate for changing their school’s dress code.

Challenging norms is developmentally appropriate. At the elementary level, students have a strong sense of fairness, and research shows that even babies have a basic understanding of equality.

And while I’ve written a novel about students running a school-wide dress code protest, there are lots of ways for your student to share their opinion about the dress code and begin to work for change. Is there a student forum on campus? Or a student council? Younger students can be encouraged to write their ideas or even dictate them. As appropriate for their development, help your student take ownership over the conversation to build their sense of agency.

Dressed for success

If you’ve ever battled with your child during your morning routine, you know how important clothes can be to their identity. Helping them understand the biases ingrained in their school’s dress code can empower them to speak up for themselves or their peers. As they understand how to make change in their school, they’ll grow into active community members who believe in their own agency. Empathy and civic action never go out of style.

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