Dress codes are not worth enforcing

Public schools across the country are increasingly abolishing dress codes  (“Schools Relax Dress Codes in Bid to End Body Shaming,” The Wall Street Journal, Jul. 13). Although the ostensible reason is that they inordinately targeted females, I believe there is another more pragmatic one.

The reality is that enforcement is a nightmare, even when parents buy into the policy.  The time and effort involved in measuring the length of clothing and the style of clothing are simply not worth it.  What I see as a far more troublesome issue is the display of offensive language and images.  The U.S. Supreme Court rules that students do not lose their right to free speech when they step on school grounds.  As a result, school officials will find themselves on legal thin ice if they try to prevent slogans and other expressions of free speech.

Religious and private schools are a different story.  They have long had dress codes, without the same problem as public schools. (I’m not talking now about charter schools, which are public schools but are allowed to operate by a completely different set of rules than traditional public schools.)

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4 Replies to “Dress codes are not worth enforcing”

  1. Although enforcing dress codes will pose hassles for administrators, at a gut level I support dress codes — mostly in order to establish the school administration’s authority within the school + to reinforce the sense among the students that school time is different than hanging-out-with-friends time.

    Certainly, in some situations — i.e., Catholic schools in the 1950s — dress codes can serve this purpose too well. If students are already living in dread of the school administration and/or if students are so stressed/up-tight in school that they are having psychological problems, then eliminating or at least relaxing a dress code will help resolve problems.

    However, my sense is that in the overwhelming majority of neighborhood public schools — particularly in the inner-city — students rarely live in dread of the school administration (quite the opposite) and students view school as a place to goof off. Dress codes can be productive in these situations.

    Also — my gut sense is that the perpetual screw-up/insubordinate students will be the ones most likely to violate a dress code. Dress code violations are pretty easy to prove/document — much easier than insubordination or minor in-class misbehavior. If so, having a dress code gives teachers/administrators a relatively easy way of establishing authority over the perpetual screw-up.

    Re students’ rights — I’m pretty sure that courts today will give schools a lot of leeway to enforce dress codes, so long as the schools apply the codes consistently.


  2. Labor Lawyer: It’s the enforcement part of a dress code policy that is the problem. Administrators will have to spend an inordinate amount of time identifying violators and then suspending them. Perhaps dress codes are easier to enforce in small, homogeneous districts, with parental buy-in. But in large, urban districts, it’s another story.


  3. Maybe the harshness of measuring hems and so on isn’t part of a modern dress code. What was that about anyway? Very Puritan-esque. My granddaughters attend a public charter with a dress code and there are all kinds of items that are part of the wardrobe- shorts pants, skirts, skorts and basically polo shirts and a jacket or sweater. Once a month they have a Free Dress day and every few weeks there is a yard sale of uniform pieces at heavily discounted prices. As a student I would have fought a dress code, but as a grandparent I think it’s a great idea and the kids like it too. Takes a lot of pressure off everybody. A great leveller.


  4. dkhatt: Dress codes can work if all parents buy into them. That’s more likely to happen in small, homogeneous communities. In the Los Angeles Unified School District where I taught for 28 years, that was impossible. In fact, the more diverse the district became, the harder it was to get support.


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