In recent years, high school dress codes around the country have gotten attention from the media as students who were dress-coded (penalized for violation of the dress code) spoke out against their unfair enforcement. Schools throughout the US have sent girls home for trivial reasons, such as exposing their shoulders or collarbones, which could be interpreted as the objectification and hypersexualization of female students. Comparatively, IHS grants its students moderate freedom in terms of what they can wear to school. However, the high school staff still seems to be much more inclined to dress-code female students than male students, and seems to use inconsistent standards and unfair procedures in the event of a code violation, leading to a flawed and problematic method of rule enforcement.
The rules of IHS’s dress code, according to the 2017–18 Student Handbook, are as follows: clothing that “bears an expression or insignia that is obscene, lewd, vulgar, libelous, [or] advocates unlawful violence or prejudice” or “is excessively ‘revealing’ or ‘see-through’ when it allows one’s underwear to be seen” is not permitted. The current dress code is notably different from that from the 2015–16 school year, which was more specific in defining what “revealing” meant through prohibiting “bottoms short enough that the student’s fingers extend below the hem when hands are held at the student’s side,” as well as banning tube tops, plunging necklines, and spaghetti straps.
The recent changes in the dress code were instituted to reflect the administration’s goal of being more progressive and updated. On paper, IHS’s current dress code seems unbiased, reasonable, and much more forgiving than those of other school districts around the country that have harsher and more specific guidelines for what kind of clothing students, especially girls, are allowed to wear. However, despite their good intentions, the administration has not yet fully addressed the problems with dress code enforcement. The new rules, which became much more open to interpretation, cause biased enforcement, and some staff members enforce the code in such a way that leads to public humiliation and inefficient use of class time.
According to a school-wide survey by the Editorial Board, among the 403 student respondents, roughly 20 percent have been dress-coded at least once, and female students were about three times as likely to be dress-coded (at 38 percent) compared to male students. The breakdown by race and gender in the sample of students is similar to those of the whole student body, meaning that these statistics are likely to accurately represent IHS students. A number of female students expressed distaste toward the reasons for how they had violated the dress code, which included shorts that didn’t go past their fingertips, tops with spaghetti straps, or tops that revealed their shoulders, cleavage, stomachs, or backs. These are rules that are no longer included in the handbook, but are still enforced by some staff members.
Conversely, the small percentage of male students (9 percent) who were dress-coded had been wearing togas or bathrobes as part of their sports team spirit. They reported that the dress code wasn’t enforced strongly, and that if the girls’ team had done the same, they would have been “harassed way more about it.” Many male students admitted that they did not understand why the dress code was a big deal, because they had never run into any problems with it. The statistical difference between the dress-code rates for boys and girls demonstrates the role that gender plays into the frequency of dress-coding at IHS.
The survey results also showed that Asian students were least likely to have ever been dress-coded (at a dress-code rate of 8 percent), while Hispanic students (42 percent), followed by black or African American students (31 percent), were most often dress-coded. These statistics clearly show that race, in addition to gender, plays an important role in how school administrators interpret and enforce the current dress code. Students reported feeling discriminated against through enforcement of the dress code; for instance, one student wrote, “If I was white, they wouldn’t have said anything.” Body type can influence how students’ clothing is judged, and students reported this type of bias as well.
Being dress-coded often comes hand in hand with humiliation. In the survey, students reported feeling “embarrassed and upset,” “targeted,” “self-conscious,” and “objectified.” In addition, the procedure following the violation, such as being sent out of class to change clothes, takes away from class time. Students are typically sent out of class to change into their gym clothes or clothes provided by the nurse, wasting time in which they could be learning. Given the much higher frequency of girls being dress-coded, this means that girls, especially Hispanic and African American girls, may be disadvantaged academically due to how they dress.
In the current dress code, the level at which clothing is deemed inappropriate is generalized as “excessively revealing,” which is problematic, because any ambiguity in the wording of the dress code allows teachers to use their biases and personal impressions to distinguish between suitable and unsuitable attire. Reverting back to a more specifically outlined dress code is not the solution to eliminate biased dress code enforcement. Rather, in order to make dress code enforcement fairer, school staff responsible for enforcing the dress code should be informed of the consequences of dress-coding, such as lost class time and humiliation. Instead of confronting students about their attire in front of the class, conversations about the dress code should occur privately. Staff should also be made aware of the sexist and racist implications of biased dress code enforcement. Instead of accusing students of wanting to attract attention, for instance, the dialogue should instead be focused on maintaining a semi-professional environment through the clothes and attitudes of all students. Through these measures, staff members would be much more likely to reflect on who they dress-code and why.