Dress codes need flexibility

It never ceases to amaze me how common sense in enforcing school rules is lacking. Consider dress codes  (“Is Your Body Appropriate to Wear to School?,” The New York Times, Apr. 19). Even when parents buy in to the policy, it is no guarantee of its success.

I have in mind now the case of a 17-year old at Braden River High School in Bradenton, Fla. who didn’t wear a bra because of a painful sunburn.  Realizing that she was in violation of the school’s dress code, she wore an oversized T-shirt to conceal her nipples.  Rather than accept her reasonable explanation, school administrators humiliated her.

This is another example of how zero tolerance policies have backfired when schools have refused to back down in the face of plausible excuses. The girl in question used sound judgment, but that was not enough to get her off the hook.  When I was teaching in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I remember vividly the result of a ban on short skirts that did not meet the stipulated length.  All it did was create countless hours of work for administrators, who summoned the girls to their offices and used a ruler to determine if the girls were in violation.

I have nothing against school dress codes, including uniforms, but I think they have to be reasonable in light of changing fashions.  In the final analysis, they can succeed when flexibility is used.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)

4 Replies to “Dress codes need flexibility”

  1. No easy answers. As soon as flexibility is introduced into dress codes or dress code enforcement, it is inevitable that some students/parents will claim discrimination or at least unequal treatment.

    I’d err on the side of allowing schools to enforce dress codes — even relatively conservative dress codes — so long as the consequences for an occasional violation of the dress are relatively slight (i.e., go home and change your clothes or stay in a separate study room for the rest of the day).

    Seems that dress codes are also one area where it is reasonable for schools to have different rules for boys and for girls. This is what lawyers would call a “bona fide occupational qualification” in the sex-discrimination-in-employment context. Given that there are physical differences between the sexes, that sexual attraction/distraction will be triggered by different exposures for males and females and that society generally expects men and women to dress differently, schools should be allowed to impose different dress codes for the different sexes. Also, I’d give little/no weight to the student’s right to dress as he/she sees fit — rarely a real First Amendment right.

    Not sure what I’d do with the too-sunburned-to-wear-a-bra case. Sympathy for the girl’s view, but also sympathy for the school’s view — if X can beat the wear-a-bra rule by claiming sunburn, then Y and Z may also try to beat the bra rule by claiming other excuses and many girls/boys will see X in school w/o a bra, not know about the sunburn, and jump to the reasonable conclusion that the school is not enforcing the dress code. Then A shows up wearing baggy pants or B shows up wearing tights instead of pants and both cite X going braless as proof that the school is not enforcing the dress code consistently. A possible approach would be to enforce dress codes strictly with the provision that a student may violate the dress code if the student has a sound reason (like the sunburn) and obtains permission from the front office before the start of the school day.

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  2. Labor Lawyer: Thanks for explaining “bona fide occupational qualification.” In today’s litigious society, it’s impossible to design a policy that will pass muster with everyone. That’s why I think there needs to be some flexibility. You’re quite correct that allowing flexibility can backfire, which is why school uniforms may be the best way to proceed. Even then, however, there will be abuses. It would be interesting to see how private and religious schools handle the matter.

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  3. Out of school suspensions don’t change behavior; in England pickpocketing was punished by public hanging, the most fertile ground for picking pockets was at the public pickpocket hangings.
    You change behavior by engaging the student in a well structured conversation with a skilled intervenor.
    Involving students and parents in designing a dress code is far better than imposing and punishing.
    We really have been successful in incarcerating pot smokers …

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    1. Ed: Correct! Dress codes and other policies are effective when they are designed with parental input. That’s a lesson not all schools have learned, with the result that so much time is spent in enforcement. Private and religious schools have a distinct advantage over traditional public schools because parents know before enrolling their children what is expected.

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