Questions the Effectiveness of School Dress Codes
In recent years, students and parents alike have questioned the effectiveness of school dress codes and noticed the negative ramifications these codes have on women and people of color. Traditional dress codes usually prohibit certain categories of clothes, such as gang attire, but some schools may enforce uniform codes ranging from “jeans and a white t-shirt to blazers and skirts” (Gilbert 1999, p.1) According to University of Memphis Law and Leadership professor Nathan L. Essex (2004), school officials first implemented dress codes banning gang attire as a way to ensure a “safe learning environment” and “protect the health and safety of students” (p. 33). In fact, school dress code supporters often argue that dress codes promote school safety. However, David Brunsma, a University of Missouri sociology professor, points out that “there is much to be done” in research assessing “the effectiveness of school uniform on student behavior” (Boutelle, 2008, 1).
Today, school administrators encourage dress codes as a way to promote school unity and “improve the quality of education” within classrooms (Wilson, 1998, p.1). However, many students seldom experience a dress code policy’s positive effects. In fact, dress codes often reinforce negative stereotypes and unintentionally discriminate against some students by banning clothing mostly worn by minorities and women, leading to unequal learning opportunities for oppressed students. According to University of Illinois master’s student in education, Alyssa Pavlakis, and Department of Education assistant professor, Rachel Roegman (2018), racially and socially biased dress codes make minority groups more likely to face repercussions for breaking dress code than their white or male counterparts (p. 55). By enforcing biased dress codes, schools limit the education of oppressed groups through suspension, as well as by forcing offending students to change rather than go to class (Pavlakis and Roegman, 2018, p. 57). Although administrators originally implemented school dress codes to benefit students, several studies show that many common dress codes perpetuate negative social and cultural stereotypes against oppressed groups, including women and people of color. Therefore, schools should opt for more relaxed dress code policies and acknowledge any social biases that might cause teachers and administrators to unjustly discriminate against oppressed groups.
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Racism and Criminalization of People of Color
An important factor one must consider when analyzing the effects of student dress codes is the racism embedded within dress code policies. In an observational study analyzing the relationship between race and disciplinary actions for dress code violations in Lincoln High School, University of Illinois researchers found that non-white females were at least two times as likely to be coded for a dress code violation than white females, despite both white and non-white females breaking code at similar rates (Pavlakis & Roegman, 2018, p. 55). Similarly, over 15% of multiracial males—as opposed to less than 5% of white males—faced discipline after breaking dress code, despite breaking dress codes against head coverings half as much as their white counterparts (Pavlakis & Roegman, 2018, p.55). These results demonstrate that despite having similar rates of dress code infractions as white students, students of color were more likely to face discipline for dress code violations because of school personnel’s biases against clothing commonly worn by students of color, like do-rags. Lincoln High School administrators argued that their dress code against head coverings was set to prohibit clothing that would “prevent security personnel from recognizing” problematic or dangerous students (Pavlakis & Roegman, 2018, p. 57). However, Pavlakis and Roegman’s research shows that inconsistent enforcement of this rule reinforces stereotypes depicting males of color as “potential threats” who need “to be watched over and disciplined” for wearing do-rags covering “nothing but [their] haircut,” whereas white males receive no discipline for violating the same rule by wearing hoods or hats (Pavlakis & Roegman, 2018, p. 57).
Racist and inconsistent dress code policies like those in Lincoln High School often result from vague descriptions of inappropriate dress within policies. For example, the Duncanville School District in Texas prohibits “startling,” “unusual,” or “disruptive” dress and grooming within schools, leaving students to question what constitutes startling or unusual dress (Essex, 2004, p. 34). Confusing policies like those in Duncanville lead to discrimination against people of color in traditional hairstyles, such as when a Massachusetts school district removed two African-American students from their sports teams and forbid them from attending prom because the district deemed the students’ braided hair “unnatural,” (“Are…Dress Codes Fair?,” 2019, p. 5). When enforcing “broad and nebulous” dress code policies, teachers and administrators often characterize common clothing and hairstyles people of color wear, such as headwraps or braids, as “unusual,” therefore reinforcing the negative connotations associated with African-American culture, and with people of color themselves (Essex, 2004, p. 34) (“Are… Dress Codes Fair?,” 2019, p. 2). In order to end racist dress codes’ harmful repercussions, Georgia State University postdoctoral researcher Rouhollah Aghasaleh (2018) suggests “subversive repetition,” which urges teachers and school administrators to acknowledge and resist the biases causing them to discriminate against students (p. 1).
Gender Discrimination and the Sexualization of Girls
Recent controversy over gender discrimination in dress codes has brought to light how some school dress codes punish girls unfairly by enforcing “sex stereotyping” and “slut shaming” (Harbach, 2016, p. 1040). For example, schools in Illinois and New Jersey have banned items of clothing, like leggings, deemed “too distracting” for male students and teachers (Harbach, 2016, 1039). Dress codes like those in Illinois, New Jersey, and Florida demonstrate how schools contribute to the sexualization of girls from a young age. According to Dr. Lauren Fasig Caldwell, director of the American Psychological Association Children, Youth and Families Office, sexualization occurs when sexuality is inappropriately imposed on a person (Caldwell 1). By this definition, gendered school dress codes like those in Illinois and New Jersey impose sexuality on young students, since they may not perceive themselves “in sexual terms” when breaking code (Harbach, 2016, 1044).
According to Pavlakis and Roegman, these codes promote narratives that place blame for “harassment, assault, and rape” on a female victim’s clothing choices “and not on the actions of their perpetrators” (2018, p.57). A prime example of female objectification due to dress codes occurred in a Florida High School when school officials forced 17-year-old student Lizzy Martinez to wear an undershirt under her “long sleeve, oversize, crew neck… t-shirt” because “boys were looking and laughing” at her, despite the student never directly receiving any remarks about her outfit before being sent to the dean’s office (Krischer, 2018, p. 1). By blaming male students’ distraction on a female student’s clothing, school dress codes enforce the portrayal of females as objects rather than human beings equal to men. Placing blame on a female student’s clothing also furthers sexist stereotypes depicting girl’s bodies as inherently sexual, teaching students that “girls’ bodies are dangerous… and that boys are biologically programmed to objectify and harass them” (Harbach, 2016, 1044).
Not only do some dress codes force young girls to comply with negative social stereotypes, but many also implicitly place a greater value in men’s education than women’s education. According to law professor Meredith Harbach, “gender-specific” or “selectively enforced” dress codes discipline female students at disproportionately higher rates than males, disrupting “student learning and participation” as a result of removal or detention for breaking dress code policies (Harbach, 2016, 1043). In other words, enforcing more dress code policies on female students contribute to increased rates of suspension, detention, and removal from class for female students when compared to their male classmates, leading to higher rates of absences for female students. An increased level of absences because of dress code violations can significantly impact that female student’s learning by taking away class time. In order to provide equal learning opportunities for both male and female students, school officials must overcome social biases and become aware of how their biases against girls and women influence how they enforce dress code violation rules.
Ultimately, school teachers and administrators must acknowledge their negative biases against women and people of color in order to to stop unfair enforcement of dress code policies. Furthermore, school officials should overturn dress code policies prohibiting clothing commonly worn by people of color in order to ensure equality between student education. One way school officials might decrease discriminatory dress code policies is through ending dress codes altogether, or by enforcing more relaxed dress code policies. By ending dress code enforcement, schools provide all students with an equal education without biases. However, the end of dress codes policies has limitations. For example, schools should still ban gang attire, as well as all clothing promoting hatred and violence, in order to ensure student safety, so they require some dress codes, although still less strict than those currently implemented.”