When School Dress Codes Distract From Education

From our intern podcast archive: Youth Radio teen reporter Ihlari Halliday asks, “Is the dress code really worth a student missing out on important parts of their education?”

The staff at my high school  play no games when it comes to the school’s dress code. Almost every day, I see at least five people getting called out by one the vice principals, teachers, or security guards roaming the campus. With all these adults on the lookout, you’d think they’d be watching for students who are skipping class or starting fights; but they’re simply looking at what students are wearing, debating weather or not it fits the school’s idea on what’s appropriate or not.

School dress codes are about more than spaghetti straps — they can also reinforce disparities rooted in race, class, and gender. At some schools, black girls report being given detention for having natural hair or wearing extensions. Others say dress code violations unfairly target female students, or reinforce outdated gender norms. So what does that mean for our fashion choices as start another school year?

Take an incident that happened to me at my high school: It was hot, so I wore a cropped top shirt, with dark blue jeans, with no holes or rips on them, to class. Sure, technically, I wasn’t in dress code, but none of my classmates were staring at me or causing a commotion. After all, we’ve seen way more scandalous outfits on Instagram.

Just as I was getting comfortable in my first period class, the door opened and a security guard walked in. He asked my teacher if he could take me to the principal’s office because of the way I was dressed. A short walk and a long wait in the principal’s office later, I was back in class wearing my friend’s PE shirt. It may sound like no big deal, but the whole incident caused me to miss the rest of my first period class. It was only art class, so I could easily catch up, but what about those with AP classes? Or important math classes?

It made me wonder, is the dress code really worth a student missing out on important parts of their education?

I’m not the only one who thinks our dress code policy is pointless. My friend Tavonne Larkin, 19, says she’s always been told the dress code is about keeping students “safe,” but she doesn’t really get it.

“I mean, nobody’s dressing that bad to where we’re not safe,” she said.

I agree. I mean how much harm could a tank top really cause? Although I don’t know the reason behind our dress code policy, I just assume it’s to prevent people from getting distracted. But the way I see it, the dress code itself is the real distraction. This policy causes students to fall behind in their classes.

My friend, 18-year-old Parris Grayson knows all about that. “I get sent home, and I don’t like being sent home  because I gotta miss out on school work for wearing something that no one cares about,” Parris said.  “That’s stressful because I miss out on school work and miss out on getting a good grade.”

Getting dresscoded at my school looks SO different depending on your grade level. My friend Tavonne says that if you’re a freshman, you might get away with it. But if you’re a junior or a senior, the chances of you staying on campus are slim.  Boys get away with tank tops, but not girls. And I notice that more “developed” girls are usually the ones getting in trouble, versus the girls who are naturally slim. Parris and I have matching jumpsuits that go all the way down to our ankles. Hers is pink and mine is black. She wore her jumpsuit  to school the day after I wore mine, and she was pulled out of class because a teacher complained the way it hugged her body was “too revealing.”

And it matters. If you get dresscoded too much, you don’t just risk missing out on class. you can also get barred from going to prom, rallies, or being able to leave campus for lunch.

The way I see it, it’s unfair to tell someone that what they’re wearing is inappropriate because of how it fits their bodies. The way a person’s body is shaped is usually out of their control.

But honestly, if teachers are the only ones who are uncomfortable, then who has the real problem?

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