Schools, parents and students are now clashing more frequently over the issue of regulating student attire. In November of 2014, some 25 young women attending Fredericton High School in New Brunswick walked out of class to protest the school’s dress code, labeling it “sexist,” discriminatory and indicative of a hidden “rape culture.” Since then similar student protests have spread, across Canada and the United States. When warm spring weather encouraged teens to rush the seasons, teachers and principals, bound by school dress codes, began clamping down on students, particularly teen girls, ‘showing off too much skin.’
Protests against “sexist” school dress codes are raising new issues for North American schools. Teachers and principals disciplining students for wearing “revealing attire” find themselves in the eye of a very public storm. Tech-savvy teens turn to social media with hashtag protests like #MyBodyMyBusiness and #CropTopDay aimed at so-called “sexist rules” that seem to fixate more on girls than boys.
All the publicity has rekindled the old debate over appropriate school attire. It has also prompted some North American public schools to introduce uniforms as a way to address the increasingly controversial matter of making subjective judgements about student dress. In a few schools such as Central Peel Secondary School in Brampton, Ontario, it led school authorities to institute a one-year pilot project now deemed successful by most students and their parents.
The then principal of Central Peel, Lawrence DeMaeyer, took the plunge with the support of parents and teachers looking to help kids focus more on their schoolwork. After introducing a regular uniform with white or green collared and crested polo shirts, he found “a lot less students dressing inappropriately,” “It raised the bar,” he said, and 9 out of 10 students complied immediately, while only a small percentage spent their time “trying to resist in every way.” Dealing with uniform infractions was “much more palatable” than the “very difficult” conversations regularly pitting teachers and administrators against mostly female students.
One of the relatively few experts on school dress, Dr. Barbara Cruz, a University of South Florida professor of secondary education, tends to favour uniforms, but provides a reasonably sound assessment of the educational research. In her book School Dress Codes: A Pro/Con Issue (2001 and 2004), she notes that most of the case for uniforms is based upon anecdotal evidence. When surveyed, teachers and administrators in uniformed schools are fairly consistent in reporting that students are more focused, better behaved and have higher attendance records and academic achievement. It’s also much easier to spot a stranger at school when everyone is wearing similar clothes.
The empirical evidence to support such claims is harder to find because of the state of the research and the difficulty in isolating “dress” as a factor when many factors can contribute to better student progress and behaviour.
Recent protests over “sexist” dress codes may well open the door for more experiments in introducing school uniforms. Supporters of student uniforms, normally the informal crested polo shirt version, say that the issue of sex discrimination is significantly alieviated and, after some initial adjustment, students find ways to express their identities and personalities with jewelry, accessories, and various types of long and short pants and skirts.
One Grade 12 Moncton high school student, Lauren Wiggins, famous for being suspended in her halter-top dress, is now a surprising convert to more consistent student dress codes. After achieving international fame when George Takei, “King of Facebook,” took up her cause, Lauren now advocates clear, consistent, gender-neutral dress guidelines, including — where the community supports the concept– school uniforms. Ending the “sexist” and discriminatory aspects of current policies are the first priority for her and presumably others who fashion themselves young feminists.
Will student dress code controversies remain predictable contests between conformity and individuality? To what extent are existing dress codes being applied more on teen girls than boys? Are disciplinary actions aimed at curtailing “revealing” attire and reducing “distractions” for boys indicative of a hidden “rape culture”? Would introducing simple, comfortable, gender-neutral uniforms help to address concerns raised by today’s politically-engaged young women?