STAFF: School’s dress code remains a justified source of frustration for some

Fingertip to mid-thigh.

Three fingers over a strap.

A zip-up sweater worn around a tank top, just in case.

The infamous dress code has stirred controversy throughout secondary schools across the country and around the world. At East, students’ opinions on the dress code and its enforcement vary — based on personal experience, social media, and even friends’ opinions.

While these opinions will never be completely unanimous, students must realize and consider the purpose of having a school dress code — creating a safe and secure learning environment — in forming their perspectives on it. By differentiating their experiences and those posted on social media from the realities of East, students can begin to form more informed opinions of the dress code’s true implications.  

Past vs. Present

The first dress code law was established in 1969 after Tinker v. Des Moines, a Supreme Court case involving high school students who planned to wear black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Des Moines Independent Community School District, citing that students’ fashion expressions may be limited if there is a concern of distraction or disruption to fellow students’ learning. From that point on, the dress code has been adopted into school handbooks across the nation, in public and private schools alike. As fashion progressed, dress codes were updated too, to include prohibitions on 90s staples like baggy jeans, or 2000s favorites like baby tees. 

In the SD308 student handbook, the dress code prohibits “suggestive and/or disruptive [clothing], e.g. extremely tight-fitting, cleavage-baring, fail to cover the midriff/abdominal area, halter-tops, thin straps/strapless, sheer/see-through clothing, shirts with “open” sides, short shorts/skirts/dresses (above mid-thigh), and/or shredded clothing,” as well as displays of drug or sexual paraphernalia. Typically, if a student is believed to have violated the dress code, they are either told to use outerwear to cover up, asked to be removed from class to change, or are given detention/suspension if there is any refusal to comply.

The school’s current dress code treads a fine line between empowering students to embrace their individuality while still setting expectations for appropriate attire in post-secondary environments. While yes, students should be able to express themselves through their clothing choices, not all articles of clothing can be excused in the name of this freedom. And even then, most “dress-coded” students do not receive a permanent write-up but rather a request to put on a sweatshirt or cover any inappropriate clothing. 

For safety or for shame?

While students commonly hear of overly short tank tops or unreasonably distressed jeans, students should broaden their conversation to capture the purpose of the dress code — or at least what it attempts to achieve.

A poll conducted based on a cross-section of over 600 East students found that 66.7% of respondents did not believe the dress code was necessary to create a safe and distraction-free learning environment. Compared to the 28.8% who confirmed the dress code’s need or 18.3% who reported a neutral stance, the overwhelming majority of students cite concerns over the purpose, enforcement, and implications of the dress code. Several respondents noted that their dissatisfaction is rooted in how the dress code perpetuates a gender disparity, where girls’ bodies are disproportionately sexualized and regulated compared to boys’. 

Poll based on a cross-section of 600 students

While yes, students should be able to express themselves through their clothing choices, not all articles of clothing can be excused in the name of this freedom.

Though opinions expressed in the poll do vary, the clear bias of students reaffirms the need to more closely examine the purpose and enforcement of the dress code. The overarching principle — as echoed by administrators — is to maintain a safe and secure learning environment for all individuals, one where a certain student’s style of dress does not make another uncomfortable or unsafe. In focusing on revealing clothing, many completely overlook the other half of the dress code which clearly aligns with its purpose: student clothing should not display profane symbols, hate speech, innuendos, or otherwise vulgar graphics. 

When considering this part of the dress code, the argument that it should be completely removed to give students autonomy over their bodies begins to falter. Should someone be able to criticize another student’s religion, background, or sexual orientation in the name of their freedom? Should half-naked anime characters plastered on the back of a t-shirt go unregulated when other students get distracted from their education to point and laugh at it? In a time period with extreme political polarization, giving students the ability to dress as they please might create situations where offensive clothing items — even if worn as a “joke” — could jeopardize their peers’ sense of safety and self.

In this way, the dress code is as fundamental as no-weapon or no-hate speech policies in maintaining an inclusive environment conducive to distraction-free learning for all students. 

And while this large portion of the dress code is commonly overlooked, students are not to blame. Virtually all viral news stories concerning the topic focus almost entirely on the contested topic of “revealing” clothing. According to a report published by Vox, at nearby Evanston Township High School, several news articles and protests criticized their overly restrictive dress code, though amended in 2017, which prohibited students from wearing mundane items including leggings and tank tops. A recent video on Tiktok showing a teen boy and girl from Illinois wearing the same outfit only for the girl to get dress-coded went viral, amassing 2 million views. And as per a KSDK report, just outside of Illinois, a St. Louis principal is caught on video apologizing to parents for telling girls that showing off their bodies will distract their male peers.

In such stories and similar ones students see plastered on front pages or Instagram feeds, many of the schools enforce a more conservative or strict dress code. Their attempts to secure their learning environment could be perceived by some as placing girls’ clothing under greater scrutiny than their male counterparts’.

But at East, the same cannot be said.

According to sources in the school’s administrative office, it’s clear that to them the dress code is simply another duty they must fulfill as part of their job — not one that they look forward to or even give priority to. According to Principal Laura Bankowski, with only three deans for nearly three thousand students, having to tell a student to “cover-up” is always accompanied by a sense of reluctance, where administrators do not want to intervene but ultimately have to. 

Further, with administrators spread thin between other responsibilities, dress-coding only happens based on who they see. Inevitably, students in violation of the dress code will go unnoticed, while others — perhaps with less noticeable infractions — are given the dreaded request to change. Though being told your clothes are inappropriate might seem like school officials are purposefully searching for and taking joy in dress-coding you, that simply isn’t the reality, according to Bankowski. 

With more and more teenagers getting their news — and opinions — from social media, it’s necessary to separate what students see on their screens from the reality of certain situations. Just because other schools are unfairly restricting their students’ dress, that does not automatically mean that East does too. Students can simultaneously acknowledge that cultural and societal issues with the dress code exist elsewhere while understanding that their school does not perpetuate those ideals.

Likewise, basing opinions solely on personal experiences getting dress-coded or what students have heard from friends also leads to bias. In a time period where people are becoming more open to sharing and listening to others’ experiences, it’s important to exercise caution. One story or experience is not always representative of the whole. 

Still, recognizing the dress code’s overall purpose and given its inconsistent enforcement, the question still stands: why are girls dress-coded more frequently than boys? 

The reasons aren’t always black and white

A poll conducted based on a cross-section of over 600 East students found that 27.8% of female respondents had been dress-coded compared to 6.3% of males. While looking at these numbers, it’s important to consider what clothing items are actually causing students to get dress-coded, not just the statistical disparity. 

Poll based on a cross-section of 600 students
Poll based on a cross-section of 600 students

Perhaps the biggest underlying clue lies in what dictates students’ clothing decisions: current fashion trends. Most male students do not wear overly-revealing clothing and — as per administrators — are dress-coded in smaller numbers for infractions such as sagging pants or inappropriate graphics on t-shirts. Female students, on the other hand, tend to dress more trend-consciously, meaning that administrators see more students with overly-revealing tops or short shorts. 

The difference between male and female rates of being dress-coded is simply a byproduct of pop culture and teenage style, not necessarily a sexist system upheld by the school. 

Though opinions on what items of clothing are “inappropriate” will endlessly vary, students should recognize and agree with the purpose behind the dress code. They need to evaluate the true value of coming to school each morning, of sitting in their classrooms: to learn. There may be some blurred, contested line between what clothing should and shouldn’t be allowed, but any perspective should consider what the line attempts to do. 

It is by combining their own experiences and others’ stories with an objective understanding of the dress code’s purpose that students should form their opinions of it. 

While Aryav Bothra & Kelsey Gara wrote this staff editorial, its contents represent the opinions & viewpoints of the staff as a whole.

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