Education & Family

Are dress codes fair? How one middle school transformed its rules for what students wear

She recruited over 20 younger individuals ages 12 to 18 to analysis dress codes together with her and produce a report on dress codes that includes the twelve faculties they collectively attended in DC. Their findings uncovered gender and race stereotypes inside dress code insurance policies. “They were using language saying girls need to cover up to avoid distracting boys or Black girls can’t wear head wraps because it’s unprofessional or it’s not neat,” stated Evans.These insurance policies resulted in harsh punishments starting from disrupting classroom time to suspensions. According to a Government Accountability Office report, 90% of dress codes have insurance policies that dictate what girls can wear. The NWLC discovered that Black girls, who had the best suspension fee within the nation in comparison with white girls, had been being unfairly focused by school dress codes. 

Uniforms, that are lauded as a technique to cut back the looks of financial disparity, proved to be an imperfect resolution. Nearly 20% of the nation’s public faculties and preschools require uniforms, in response to the National Center for Education Statistics. Over the course of their analysis, students discovered that uniforms, typically bought at particular shops, can develop into a monetary burden for many households. They will also be limiting from a developmental standpoint. “You’re taking an opportunity away from students to be able to express themselves,” Evans stated. The pupil researchers discovered that uniforms can alienate non-binary students. “We are enforcing what we think girls should look like and what boys should look like. We’re not creating a lot of space for any type of spectrum,” Evans added.

The pupil researchers proposed options for school leaders seeking to enhance their dress codes. They advisable the creation of dress code activity forces, made up of academics, directors, dad and mom, and students, to debate whether or not a school’s dress code achieved the supposed targets. They emphasised the significance of, permitting students to precise their genuine selves, together with cultural representations like headwraps and Black hairstyles. Additionally, students known as for gender-neutral dress codes that didn’t require students to need to wear particular garments due to their gender id. They additionally advised taking out imprecise language akin to ‘distracting’ or ‘inappropriate’ from dress code insurance policies, because it typically leaves room for trainer bias and subjective interpretation.

Collaboration and communication

At Alice Deal, Principal Neal partnered with dad or mum Deborah Zerwitz to get enter from students and households earlier than altering the dress code. Zerwitz drew insights from the NWLC report, in addition to from student-centered practices from Evanston Township High School in Illinois, a school that had modified their dress code the yr prior. Recognizing the necessity to foster a respectful and equitable studying atmosphere, Evanston Township engaged in collaborative discussions involving students, dad and mom, academics, and directors to redefine their dress code pointers. 

Neal let dad and mom know in her weekly publication that they may attend 4 listening periods for students, dad and mom and directors to voice their concepts and opinions on the dress code. Listening periods had been supplied at numerous instances and areas on and off the school campus to make them as accessible as doable. To collect much more pupil suggestions, Zerwitz put up poster boards outdoors of the school cafeteria with questions like:

  • “What changes would you make to the dress code?”
  • “What do you think about school uniforms?”
  • “What should the consequences be for violating a dress code?”

Students might stick post-it notes to the board with their solutions or place nameless concepts in  a shoebox with a slot in it.. 

Additionally, Neal and Zerwitz created a activity pressure made up of pupil and dad or mum volunteers. “Somebody’s got to put pen to paper at some point,” stated Zerwitz. “We were trying to identify a core group of people that will actually take all this information and distill it.” The activity pressure used the suggestions from the listening periods and posters to create the brand new dress code.


Empowering students and redefining dress code insurance policies

Zerwitz and Neal acquired numerous suggestions concerning the dress code, with students, significantly girls, expressing their want to be heard and understood. “They wanted to say how it was making them feel. And they felt awkward. They felt like, ‘Why are these grown ups looking at me every morning and telling me something’s wrong?” Zerwitz stated.

The consensus from academics was that they didn’t like spending time imposing the dress code. However, some academics — normally older academics, Zerwitz stated — tended to suppose the students ought to dress professionally for school and had been in favor of a strict dress code. 

Among dad and mom, security issues surfaced. For instance, a dad or mum of two Black boys stated that she likes utilizing the dress code insurance policies as a cause her son can’t wear hoodies to school. Citing issues about stereotypes and racial profiling, particularly contemplating incidents just like the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, the dad or mum defined  that she might “breathe a little bit easier when my two Black sons leave the house and they’re not wearing a hood.”

With help from the NWLC, Neal, Zerwitz and the duty pressure members labored by these tensions. “Sometimes in wanting to protect our young people, we end up reinforcing the very inequalities that the world puts on them,” stated Evans. “The solution to sexual harassment isn’t to get girls to cover up. The solution to police violence and racist violence is not to punish Black boys for wearing hoodies.”

Long-term advantages and affect

The outcomes of the schoolwide effort to vary the dress code got here on the finish of the 2017-18 school yr when Alice Deal Middle School launched a revised, gender non-specific and relaxed dress code. Students had been required to cowl the core of their our bodies with opaque material, however there was better flexibility with articles like crop tops and hoodies. Importantly, academics had been suggested to not take away students from class in the event that they violated the dress code. Principal Neal noticed a lower in dress code-related disciplinary actions. Students reported feeling extra comfy expressing their identities, which is associated with overall well-being

Despite the constructive adjustments, in interviews final yr, some students reported that sure employees members nonetheless commented on what they wore. “We’re still working with staff,” stated Neal. “I need to check with students and see if people are dress coding them.”

The journey to a brand new dress code was a supply of delight for students. In a commencement shortly after the revised dress code was applied, Zerwitz listened to a pupil speaker discuss how the category collectively achieved this transformation. It was evident to Zerwitz that the students understood the ability of their voices and felt empowered by the affect they’d at their school. “Those kids — all of the ones that came to the listening sessions or wrote a note in the little box or whatever — all of them contributed in some way to this,” stated Zerwitz. “And, hopefully, [they went to high school] knowing that their voice matters.”

Episode Transcript

This is a computer-generated transcript. While our staff has reviewed it, there could also be errors.

Nimah Gobir: Welcome to MindShift. Where we discover the way forward for studying and the way we elevate our youngsters. I’m Nimah Gobir.

Nimah Gobir: Every day, when students prepare within the morning, they’re confronted with a problem: [dramatic music] deciding what to wear to school that day.

Nimah Gobir: They need to weigh a variety of components. Like…What makes me really feel comfy? What’s the climate outdoors? And perhaps even What will my crush in third interval take into consideration my match? 

Nimah Gobir: In seventh grade, when Zya Kinney was in her favourite outfit, you couldn’t inform her nothing.

Zya Kinney: I wore my crimson skirt with a spaghetti strap type of tank high  – And I had no leggings on. I used to be feeling myself! 

Nimah Gobir: Zya’s twenty-three now. She was speaking about when she was a pupil at Alice Deal Middle School in Washington, DC. It was ten years in the past, however she remembers how placing on the proper outfit might make her be ok with herself. 

Zya Kinney: I’d simply placed on no matter was comfy and no matter was like type of cute. And i’d have my little come out moments right here and there.

Nimah Gobir: One of the explanations Zya remembers the outfit she wore is as a result of it was the day she acquired dress coded. 

Nimah Gobir: That means she was in violation of the school’s rules that dictate what students ought to and shouldn’t wear. There’s normally language about seen pores and skin, footwear and even hair in some instances. Most faculties have them, however they are often flawed.

Leora Tanenbaum: The large irony, after all, that lies on the coronary heart of school dress codes is that they’re drafted with the intention of eliminating distraction and serving to learners. But the alternative truly occurs ultimately as a result of learners themselves are focused and subsequently they’re unable to deal with studying. 

Nimah Gobir: That’s author and researcher Leora Tanenbaum. She additionally calls out dress code incidents on her Instagram. 

Leora Tanenbaum: Where they go fallacious is when they’re gendered. When the codes are created with a presupposition that girls’ our bodies pose a distraction to different learners and subsequently girls’ our bodies must be coated up in a particular means. And subsequently the dress code is drafted in a means that has completely different language and completely different rules relying on one’s gender.

Nimah Gobir: If you violate the dress code, a trainer would possibly name you over to speak with you privately about your garments otherwise you’ll be despatched to the principal’s workplace. You might need to do the fingertip check the place you set your arms by your sides and see in case your skirt or shorts go previous your fingertips.

Leora Tanenbaum: It embarrasses the coed. It makes her swiftly very conscious of her physicality in a means that she could not have been in any respect. The trainer would possibly assume she was conscious of her physicality however you possibly can’t assume that.

Nimah Gobir: Zya was in school when she acquired dress coded. 

Zya Kinney: My trainer gave us some work to do. Like simply busy work or no matter. And she’s like, ‘Can I talk to you, you know, outside the classroom?’  You know, I feel I’m not even pondering it has one thing to do with my outfit.  She stated ” Your skirt is just too brief.” 

Nimah Gobir: When Zya put her arms at her sides, her middle fingertips had been simply barely previous her skirt!

Zya Kinney: and, are you aware, they made me change it to my fitness center shorts? I’m strolling round right here, cute up high, fitness center down, down…down under, like I’m not trying the identical. And I bear in mind being so upset about it as a result of it’s like, Why are you sexualizing a seventh grader? 

Nimah Gobir: To her, it was a lot greater than having to vary garments. She was making an attempt to slot in and be  assured and her school mainly advised her that she was doing it fallacious.

Zya Kinney: I can’t lie and let you know that the favored girls weren’t sporting the skirts and had all the brand new issues. They had the equipment. They had like three completely different e-book luggage in rotation after I had simply the one backpack. And I undoubtedly bear in mind seeing the distinction in attention that they’d get from guys and stuff like that, after which even their girlfriends. Like I felt like they had been at all times those that you simply selected for stuff or, you realize, they had been like probably the most likable individuals and every thing. And whereas I used to be, I used to be okay with myself, however I used to be additionally actually insecure too. [00:07:01][19.3]

Nimah Gobir: Zya, who’s Black, additionally observed one thing else concerning the dress codes…  

Zya Kinney: It wasn’t till I started sporting skirts and clothes and I observed how my white buddies wouldn’t have something stated to them about what they’ve on. And I spotted, okay, if I wear a skirt and he or she wears a skirt, we’ve on two completely different skirts. 

Nimah Gobir: And Zya was on to one thing. Here’s researcher and author Nia Evans. 

Nia Evans: I’m mainly a Black lady who grew up in D.C. And after I was working on the National Women’s Law Center, we had been doing a variety of analysis about what we name school push out.

Nimah Gobir: School push out is mainly when faculties use disciplinary actions that exclude students. These self-discipline practices typically find yourself forcing students out of school altogether.

Nia Evans: What we discovered was that dress codes had been constantly developing as an enormous contributor to school push out. That black girls specifically had been being unfairly focused by school dress codes. But not solely had been they being handled in another way in school, they had been being faraway from faculties.

Nimah Gobir: At the time she was doing this analysis – round 2018. Black girls had a few of the highest suspension charges within the nation. So high that the obama administration opened investigations into school self-discipline insurance policies.  again then black girls had been 20 instances extra more likely to be suspended than white girls. And to be clear, it was not as a result of Black girls had been misbehaving extra, it’s as a result of they had been being focused by harsher rules.

Nia Evans: We determined to associate with the consultants on the subject of dress codes, which is students. We recruited over 20 younger individuals, ages 12 to 18 from 12 completely different high faculties in Washington, D.C., to be our co-researchers. 

Nimah Gobir: Nia labored with them to supply a report about their experiences with dress codes and the way they’re enforced. What they discovered confirmed Zya’s suspicions: for black students, dress codes hit completely different.

Nia Evans: Dress codes typically are steeped in race and gender stereotypes.  They had been utilizing language saying, you realize, girls have to cowl as much as keep away from from distracting boys or black girls can’t wear head wraps as a result of it’s unprofessional or it’s not neat. 

Nia Evans: At a high degree, a variety of these rules are form of remnants of racist, sexist concepts and are invested in and are a mechanism to form of maintain students in line and to speak a sure narrative round what it means to be skilled, what it means to be neat, what it means to achieve success. 

Nimah Gobir: Many faculties will defend their dress code saying that they need their students to be ready to dress for jobs as an grownup, however that’s open to interpretation. Different jobs require completely different garments. Zya, the 23 yr previous I spoke to clothes fairly casually for her job at ABC studios as a result of she’s running round delivering scripts to producers all day. 

Nimah Gobir: When dress codes come into query, generally the response is to place youngsters in uniforms – virtually half of faculties and preschools use uniforms now. It is sensible… If everybody has to wear the identical factor meaning no extra issues proper? Well… not essentially.  Here’s Nia once more.

Nia Evans: From a development standpoint, you’re taking a chance away from students to have the ability to specific themselves. Uniforms are sometimes gender particular, which suggests, once more, we’re imposing what we expect girls ought to appear like, boys ought to appear like. We’re not creating a variety of area for any in between any sort of spectrum. 

Nimah Gobir:  The students that Nia labored with supplied a number of options.

Nia Evans: Plenty of them advisable that faculties create dress code activity pressure forces, the place academics and directors and fogeys and students can come collectively and actually start with the query of what is the purpose of this? Why do we’ve a dress code? What is the purpose? Is it attaining its targets? And if it’s not, do we’d like it?  

Nia Evans: So it actually ignited, I feel, an extended overdue challenge in D.C. And we noticed a variety of pupil and dad or mum activism because of it. And some academics and directors listened.  

Nimah Gobir: News of this report reached the principal at  Zya’s former school – Alice Deal middle school. And after we get again from the break we’ll hear about what THE principal did when she took a better take a look at her school’s dress code. Her response could shock you.

Nimah Gobir: When I talked to Principal Diedre Neal from Alice Deal Middle School she stated that moments in the past there have been three younger women in her workplace. One was sporting ripped denims, one other was sporting a tube high, and one other sporting a spaghetti strap tank high. Ordinarily, all of them would have gotten dress coded, however one thing wonderful occurred: Principal Neal didn’t care. 

Nimah Gobir: And that’s important as a result of dress codes was once a state of affairs…

Diedre Neal: Every spring when kids wished to shift from, you realize, lengthy pants to shorts and skirts, there could be both commentary or and I’m smiling as a result of there was at all times a petition. It was at all times a petition. And I bear in mind saying, “I can’t wait until we solve this issue, and then you can move on and give me a petition for something else.”

Nimah Gobir: After studying the dress code report, Principal Neal acknowledged that it was in all probability time for dress codes to vary.

Diedre Neal: Over time, like imposing it. I’d say there was cognitive dissonance. People had been being despatched out of sophistication to deal with what they’d on. So they had been in school , they’d their work, they had been participating, they had been studying, and so we took them away from their studying to have a dialog about what they had been sporting. 

Nimah Gobir:  She wanted to determine what it could take to make Alice Deal’s dress code work in favor of studying. To get started, Principal Neal partnered  with a dad or mum named Debb Zerwitz.

Debb Zerwitz: We introduced that we had been going to be making a activity pressure to evaluation and replace the dress code.

Nimah Gobir: They created a little bit arrange outdoors the school cafeteria .

Debb Zerwitz: We put up large poster boards with questions like.

Debb Zerwitz: What adjustments would you make to the dress code? What do you consider school uniforms? And what ought to the implications be for violating a dress code?

Nimah Gobir: They had post-it notes in all these completely different colours so students might stick their concepts to the poster board. And they’d 4 listening periods the place they’d get suggestions and enter from students, directors and fogeys. They had conversations with dad and mom who wished to maintain the dress code for actually legitimate causes. For instance, a variety of faculties don’t let students wear hoodies. Black dad and mom didn’t need their youngsters sporting hooded sweatshirts out the door due to Trayvon Martin.

[News clip Reporter: Trayvon Martin was sporting a grey hoodie the night time he was killed, a incontrovertible fact that caught the attention of neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman.  Zimmerman: This man appears to be like like he’s as much as no good or he’s on medication or one thing.  Dispatcher: Did you see what he was sporting?  Zimmerman: Yeah. A darkish hoodie. Like a grey hoodie.  Reporter: A couple of minutes later Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin, he claims, in self protection.]

Nimah Gobir: One Black dad or mum in one of the listening periods, stated she preferred having the help of the school dress code, to maintain her youngster from sporting hoodies . 

Debb Zerwitz: She stated I can level to the coverage and say you’re going to get in hassle and also you’re going to get you’re going to have to vary your garments and it’s going to be embarrassing that that helps me at residence if there’s a coverage. Who the hell am I to, like, dismiss this mom telling me like, I just like the dress code? And that is one of the the reason why. Like, after all I hear you. You know I do.

Nimah Gobir: Another factor that surfaced within the listening periods had been some generational variations. In many instances it’s older Black adults telling youthful black youngsters that they should look extra presentable. In different phrases, they leaned into respectability politics, a means of making an attempt to navigate prejudice and discrimination by making oneself match the visible requirements set by these in energy. . It’s mainly saying, “Hey, look, we’re just like you, so you should respect us and treat us better!”

Nimah Gobir: Nia — she’s the researcher who made the dress code report with students — observed respectability politics in dress codes too.

Nia Evans: You even have a deeper layer of Black academics and younger individuals and fogeys who love one another, who’re actually scuffling with the best way to maintain youngsters protected. And the identical means the answer to sexual harassment isn’t to get girls to cowl up. The resolution to police violence and racist violence is to not punish black boys for sporting hoodies. 

Nia Evans: I don’t suppose you possibly can dress your means out of racism and sexism. I don’t. And I additionally suppose that generally in wanting to guard our younger individuals, we find yourself reinforcing the very inequalities that the world places on them.

Nia Evans: Dress codes truly maintain a variety of our values and fears and anxieties as a tradition. It says rather a lot about how we would like students and younger individuals to maneuver by the world, how we wish to shield them, how we wish to set them up for success and our luggage as a tradition round race and gender and sexuality and completely different identities. 

Nimah Gobir: Based on what she realized from all of the suggestions , Principal Neal with the assistance of Deb and the National Women’s Law Center ended up altering their dress code to be extra informal and gender nonspecific. Technically, students are required to wear clothes that covers the core of the coed’s body together with personal areas and midriff, with opaque material. But no one actually says something about crop tops. Even if a pupil is in violation of the dress code they don’t seem to be speculated to be taken out of sophistication. 

Nimah Gobir: When the dress code modified, students had an enthusiastic response. All the clothes they couldn’t wear earlier than was on show. Here’s Principal Neal once more.

Principal Neal: It was simply on parade after which they ran out of the utterly outrageous issues and it leveled off.

Nimah Gobir: A pupil even talked about  of their commencement speech the best way Alice Deal middle school’s pupil body had labored collectively to vary the dress code. It was clear that being a part of creating significant change at their school felt actually empowering to students. 

Nimah Gobir: To discover out what Alice Deal Middle School Students are sporting nowadays we went straight to the supply. These students could also be strolling down hallways as a substitute of the crimson carpet, however I nonetheless wished to know “Who are you wearing?” “How did you achieve this look?” 

Student 1: I wish to placed on one thing that’ll make me comfy and in addition make me really feel good. 

Student 2: Jewelry is a very large a part of like, what I wear. 

Student 3:  I’m sporting leggings proper now, however that’s type of simply because it’s type of colder proper now than it usually is.

Student 2: I’ve a variety of bracelets on more often than not.

Student 1: Right now I’m simply sporting sweatpants and my Reeboks, that are the sneakers that I wish to wear as a result of they’re comfy.

Student 4: I principally wear crocs.

Nimah Gobir: Sweatpants. Crocs. Leggings. They sound fairly unburdened. And you realize what else….they sound cozy.

Student: I really feel like, in a way, we don’t actually have a dress code like we’re allowed to wear what we would like. But wish to a sure level. 

Nimah Gobir: But not all academics and directors are totally on board. Some students talked about that there are nonetheless academics on the school who name them out for what they’re sporting.

Nimah Gobir: It’s one factor to vary a coverage, nevertheless it’s one other factor to vary the hearts and minds of all of the directors and academics. Here’s principal Neal speaking about subsequent steps.

Diedre Neal: We’re nonetheless working with employees. I now know that I have to examine with students and see if individuals are dress coding them. 

Nimah Gobir: Some would possibly name what Principal Neal did mental humility. It entails recognizing the bounds of what you suppose you realize. When Principal Neal realized extra from students, dad and mom and analysis, she realized the dress codes could be doing extra hurt than good. 

Nimah Gobir: Alice Deal Middle School got down to re-evaluate their dress code and regardless that they’re nonetheless working with academics on altering their mindsets, it’s a step in the direction of higher reflecting the wants and identities of their students. It’s essential to contain students within the course of of making insurance policies that affect them. While it could not clear up each downside, it’s an essential step in the direction of discovering extra equitable and inclusive options. 

Nimah Gobir: Thank you to Lawrence Lanahan, Zya Kinney, Leora Tanenbaum, Nia Evans, Debb Zerwitz, Principal Diedre Neal and students at Alice Deal Middle School

Nimah Gobir: The MindShift staff consists of Ki Sung, Kara Newhouse, Marlena Jackson Retondo and me, Nimah Gobir. Our editor is Chris Hambrick, Seth Samuel is our sound designer, Jen Chien is our head of podcasts, and Holly Kernan is KQED’s chief content material officer.

Nimah Gobir: MindShift’s mental humility sequence is supported by the Greater Good Science Center’s “Expanding Awareness of the Science of Intellectual Humility” mission and the Templeton Foundation.

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