A Dress Code We Can Live With
Last August, First Lady, Michelle Obama, was chastised by Washington Post writer, Robin Givhan, who reminded readers that “None of them (previous first ladies) revealed as much leg as the current first lady.” Givhan cautioned Mrs. Obama that “Avoiding the appearance of queenly behavior is politically wise. But it does American culture no favors if a first lady tries so hard to be average that she winds up looking common.”
Ms. Givhan is qualified to address fashion issues. However, as Spring breaks into full bloom, high school principals and assistant principals will be forced to become experts on fashion and to enforce student dress code policies, many of which are unenforceable.
Believe me, as a high school principal, the last thing that I wanted to do was worry about dress code policies. The reality of life is that some students will push the envelope and dress so provocatively or inappropriately that they distract their peers to the point that they disrupt the educational process.
I can remember a prominent legislator confronting me because I had the audacity to send his daughter home to change from her pajamas and slippers into appropriate school attire. I reminded him that, not only did I not discipline his daughter, but that I had personally warned his daughter and her friends not to wear pajamas to school for an upcoming school celebration.
School systems make a difficult and unpleasant task doable by having policies that are specific enough to be enforceable. In Fairfax County Public Schools, Virginia, student services representatives annually meet with principals and ask for feedback on the current policy. The policy is kept up-to-date, and principals have specific, identifiable behaviors to enforce. The Fairfax County policy is clear and reasonable. “All students are expected to dress appropriately for a K-12 educational environment. Any clothing that interferes with or disrupts the educational environment is unacceptable. Clothing with language or images that are vulgar, discriminatory, or obscene or clothing that promotes illegal or violent conduct, such as the unlawful use of weapons, drugs, alcohol, tobacco, or drug paraphernalia, or clothing that contains threats such as gang symbols is prohibited. (See page X, for additional information regarding gang-related clothing.) Clothing should fit, be neat and clean, and conform to standards of safety, good taste, and decency. Clothing that exposes cleavage, private parts, the midriff, or undergarments, or that is otherwise sexually provocative, is prohibited. Examples of prohibited clothing include, but are not limited to: sagging or low-cut pants, low-cut necklines that show cleavage, tube tops, halter tops, backless blouses or blouses with only ties in the back, clothing constructed of see-through materials, and head coverings unless required for religious or medical purposes.”
Other school systems take the easy way out and leave the dress code issue totally up to the principal’s judgment. Instead of taking a position, they put the principal on the chopping block. For example, one school system’s policy stated, “A student’s dress and appearance shall not cause disruption, distract others from the educational process or create a health or safety problem. Students must comply with specific building dress regulations of which students will be given prior notice.”
Upon reading this, I concluded that, given some of the current attitudes about dress, a student would literally have to run through the hallways naked to cause the kind of disruption that would warrant action by the principal under this policy. Perhaps I am overstating the issue, but there is simply too much subjectivity in the application of this policy to ensure consistent and fair enforcement. In other words, the policy is unenforceable.
That wouldn’t stop a school official from calling the principal to complain that supposed students, who were walking down the street in the middle of the day, were dressed inappropriately. Nor would it stop another official from calling to complain that a constituent objected to the principal’s interpretation of the dress code. Caught in the middle again!
Principals want to be instructional leaders. School systems need to align policy with practice to ensure that the school leaders they hold accountable for student achievement actually have the tools and resources needed and that they are protected from the distractions of the fashion police.