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Students at a charter school near Washington, D.C.
Students at a charter school near Washington, D.C. Credit: Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post via Getty Images

“In middle school, I had a dress code and they always dress coded people,” a Washington, D.C, student identified as Beatrice told researchers as part of a recent study published by the National Women’s Law Center. “Dress coded” is what happens when a school administrator or teacher issues someone a dress code violation. “Sometimes, they made you miss class because you didn’t have the right shoes or right sweater,” Beatrice continued.

Dress codes, which are supposed to build community cohesion by removing signifiers of class and race, are singling out children and removing them from classrooms across the country. Restrictions on some designs, shorts, dyed hair and other asinine rules governing what students can wear give educators permission to harass, discriminate and pull students out of class when they slip up. Paired with harsh discipline, these rules set students up to miss valuable instruction time. In our nation’s capital, 81 percent of the public schools require a uniform; 65 percent regulate the length of skirts; 58 percent forbid tank tops; 42 percent ban tights and/or leggings; and 45 percent require students to wear belts, according to the findings of the report, which was published by the National Women’s Law Center.

You might notice that almost all of the restrictions listed above are aimed toward female or female-identifying students. Girls are often forced to think about what they can and can’t wear, and perhaps even buy additional clothing, to abide by the rules. Gender norms are policed. Boys’ masculinity is protected while girls’ sexuality is targeted, putting an additional mental, emotional and financial burden on them.

The report found that school uniforms and dress code policies reduce time in the classroom through the real stories of 21 black girls who attend 12 different public schools, including charters, in Washington, D.C. Some of the rules they describe are just plain silly. For instance, the charter school KIPP DC forbids “pants, shorts, or skirts that have patterns, lace, polka dots, stripes, holes, or words.” KIPP also prohibits “brightly colored tights, leg-warmers, knee-high socks or fishnet stockings” — you know, garments that many adult women wear to work, the gym and to class at the university.

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Other rules are patently based on stereotypes. At Achievement Prep Wahler Middle School, “boys are not allowed to wear earrings to school. Gentlemen with earrings will be asked to remove their earring(s) prior to entering the building. NO EXCEPTIONS,” the study reports. Yet there is no mention of girls not being allowed to wear earrings. “For trans students and non-binary students, dress codes are just another form of restriction,” the report quoted 17-year-old Sage Grace Dolan-Sandrino as saying. “They also normalize cisgender and traditional roles and views. It’s traumatizing to be forced into clothes that don’t match your identity.”

In our nation’s capital, 81 percent of the public schools require a uniform and 65 percent regulate the length of skirts.

If boys are expected to dress in traditionally masculine ways, girls are punished for not being ladylike. “We’re not allowed to wear shorts, but we’re allowed to wear skirts,” said Phina Walker, 17, of Thurgood Marshall Academy in Washington, D.C. Are we back in the 1950s?

It’s clear that many dress codes seek conformity and control as a way to “unify” (read: manage) students. And they use dress codes as a tool to punish their way to cohesion (read: compliance). Dress codes that reinforce racial, sexual and class-based stereotypes put black girls particularly at risk. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that “a higher percentage of schools where 76 percent or more of students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch required school uniforms than did schools where lower percentages of students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.” Girls are punished for their hairstyles and head wraps. Their bodies are policed supposedly because they pose too much of a distraction for boys, “instead of teaching boys to respect girls, correct their behavior and be more responsible,” according to the NWLC report. This double standard encourages sexual harassment and does nothing to ameliorate rape culture.

At their best, uniforms and dress codes help enhance students, parents and teachers’ sense of school community, that feeling that we are all in this together, and are a way to obliterate very obvious class differences. In this regard, uniforms are in line with school songs, traditions and rituals that build cohesion, a sense of belonging and school spirit among the community. They help distinguish one school from another — a kind of branding.

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I’ve always been in favor of dress code policies that mandate certain colors but are much less restrictive on kinds of clothing. Schools should have mascots and sports teams and students should represent those colors. But particularly for elementary school students, it’s much more important that students are as comfortable as possible while learning. My seven year old hates blue jeans and khakis and loves what he calls “soft pants” (aka terry trousers) for this reason.

“For trans students and non-binary students, dress codes are just another form of restriction.”

For many school leaders and parents, uniforms are the manifestation of what we believe private schools that instill the fear of God in students are supposed to be. Likewise, in today’s schools, there’s an assumption that students are inherently disobedient and they need to submit to be in the position to properly learn.

An aside: As a former charter leader I saw some of the biggest proponents of school choice also apply very restrictive dress codes and harsh, “no excuses” discipline policies. Clearly, giving students the ability to pick their own clothes isn’t included in this philosophy of choice. This hypocrisy is overwhelming.

When did this need for uniformity come about? The rise of dress codes in public schools coincided with the crack cocaine epidemic and the outcry that students were preying on other students with Air Jordan basketball sneakers beginning in the mid-80s and early 90s. Some may remember the infamous Sports Illustrated cover Your Sneakers or Your Life. Around this time, uniform advocates said they were more convenient for parents, saved money and reduced the potential for crime. The NWLC report dismisses many of these myths. But now we know that dress codes also coincided with a rise in no-tolerance disciplinary policies that engendered distrust in and among black students and families by portraying us as “super-predators.”

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But I also know that teachers and principals don’t believe that the personal choices of black children are sound ones. This is why I don’t endorse uniforms because they tend to create more opportunities to punish students than to teach and nurture them.

Remember, the substance of a school community is in teaching and learning. When teachers are engaging, rigorous and validating and students are excited, attentive and participating, it doesn’t matter what students wear. Putting boys in bow ties and girls in knee-length skirts won’t make lessons any better. Girls and boys can learn how to deal with our hypersexual culture, and look beyond it. In addition, students will only develop a sense of responsibility when they are allowed to make decisions for themselves.

Great teaching meets students where they are. Limiting what students can wear says something about teachers’ confidence in their abilities to instill values like accountability, restraint and appropriateness. If we really want to improve public schooling, educators are going to have to trust their students. A dress code in an urban public school reveals more about our negative views of children than it does how they dress.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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