By Courtney Oldwyn
Sports leggings, patterned leggings, fleece leggings, high stretch skinny cords, Disney Snow White super skinny jeans. These are a few of the options you’ll find under the category of girls pants at shopping outlets for 11- to 14-year-old girls. Yet wearing any of these will cause girls to be “dress coded,” meaning they will be reprimanded and asked to change, cover up or leave a school function at the Friday Harbor Middle School.
The San Juan Island School District’s dress code, which is comparable to most public schools nationwide, states that “clothing that compromises modesty,” is not allowed. This translates to no leggings without a shirt, skirt or dress that comes to mid-thigh, not showing shoulders, bra straps, midriffs or wearing open-toed shoes. Clothing that promotes violence, drug or alcohol use or blatant racism or sexism is also not allowed.
“The purpose of the dress code is to foster a professional, safe and respectful environment at the school,” said Friday Harbor Middle School Principal Fred Woods. “The fact is that the dress code has never really been an area of major concern in the middle school.”
Middle school students and their parents beg to differ.
One local mom, who wishes to remain anonymous, said her 11-year-old daughter was “dress-coded” within her first few weeks of school for wearing thick black leggings and a long sleeve shirt that covered at least half of her rear end.
“I got a call from her school stating she was dressed inappropriately,” she said. “I was asked to bring her a change of clothes immediately.” In the meantime, she said, her daughter was made to tie a shirt around her waist and then brought out of class to change. “She was embarrassed and mortified. It’s already created an issue with her self-confidence.”
“It frustrates me at least a few times per week,” said another anonymous mom of a seventh-grade daughter. “She [my daughter] is trying to get dressed for school but it’s so hard.”
As for the five middle school girls, the Journal interviewed, one of their main complaints is that they’re not allowed to dress for today’s fashion.
“I end up wearing baggy sweats and a hoodie like every day,” said seventh grader Olivia Germaine. “How is that teaching us to “‘dress for success’?”
Freshman Olivia McMillan agrees. She was “dress coded” at her final middle school dance last May for wearing a black romper with a long sleeved flannel buttoned over it. “We can’t wear what we want without it being sexualized,” she said.
Recent research backs up her claim. In a Time Magazine article titled “How school dress codes shame girls and perpetuate rape culture” writer and founder of the Everyday Sexism Project Laura Bates states, “Meanwhile, the very act of teachers calling young girls out for their attire projects an adult sexual perception onto an outfit or body part that may not have been intended or perceived as such by the student herself. It can be disturbing and distressing for students to be perceived in this way and there is often a strong element of shame involved.”
“At Friday Harbor Middle School teachers, staff and administrators try not to make the dress code a primary focus,” said Principal Woods. “Rather, our objective is to create an environment that is respectful and professional.”
None of the six parents or more than 15 students interviewed by the Journal said school staff intentionally shamed a student but all agreed that the dress code was outdated, unfairly enforced and created a sense that the girls were responsible for not distracting the boys.
“We can’t wear leggings [as pants] because the boys will look at our butts,” said eighth grader Maddie Flaum. “It’s all about the guys.”
The middle school’s dress code for boys also follows similar guidelines occurring nationwide. No pants sagging more than two inches below the hips and no muscle shirts are allowed. According to each interviewee, every single person said the dress code is rarely if ever enforced for the boys.
According to Woods, this is mostly caused by today’s fashion. “I would say currently there are more girls [who are not compliant with the dress code],” he said. “Ten years ago it was boys.”
If enforcing the current type of dress code is inadvertently focused on girls, would school uniforms be fairer? Students may associate uniforms with conservative, private schools but according to educationbug.org, public schools in 21 states and the District of Columbia require uniforms at their public schools and the number is growing.
School uniforms tend to require all students to wear only certain colors (often khaki), dress pants and collared shirts. Critics argue that uniforms are too stifling of youngsters’ individuality or freedom to express themselves through fashion. However, according to an article titled “Education and Urban Society” on www.eric.ed.gov in which the author researches how school uniforms affect student behavior, “findings indicate that uniforms had a positive influence on school behavior, but further research is advised before definitive conclusions can be drawn.”
Judy Adams, Friday Harbor’s private Paideia Classical School principal, requires her students to wear uniforms versus having a dress code.
“We require uniforms because we think of school as a ‘workplace’ for students as well as teachers,” said Adams. “Dressing in a manner where clothing is neat, shirts tucked in, shoes tied, no holes and appropriately sized clothing sets this tone of respect for teachers and fellow learners.”
Middle schoolers at the private school are required to wear collared, sleeved shirts, dress pants, skirts or dresses, socks and brown or black closed toed shoes. No hats or headwear of any kind is allowed for boys or girls and hair color must be natural. There is a focus on “modest clothing” as it applies to both genders.
Oregon’s Chapter for the National Organization for Women created a “Model Dress Code to help districts update and improve their student dress code policies and enforcement procedures,” according to their website www.noworegon.org.
The Model Dress Code states that all school dress codes should ideally “support equitable educational access and should not reinforce gender stereotypes.” The Model Dress Codes states that all students must wear a shirt, bottoms (pants, sweatpants, leggings, shorts, skirts, dresses) and shoes. It does specify certain other dos and don’ts but the bottom line is clear: what students wear on their bodies should not define them nor cause them to be singled out by school staff.
“Let’s teach consent and self-control to both genders before we make one avoid a certain type of clothing,” said an anonymous San Juan school system employee.
“Students in Friday Harbor are great kids and usually understand that administration or faculty are following what is in the handbook,” said Woods. “We will take a closer look at the dress code for the 18-19 school year.”