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Why Are There Student Dress Codes?

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AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

You may recall an interview KNPR’s State of Nevada did several weeks ago with a middle school student who was told her hair, which she had dyed blue, was unacceptable at her school. 

As it turned out, her school backed down, and her hair remained blue.

All that got us thinking about the rationale behind dress codes. For years, it’s been a hot topic among students, parents, and school administrators.

Kaweeda Adams is the assistant chief student achievement officer for Clark County School District.

She told KNPR's State of Nevada that the main purpose of the dress code is preserving the classroom setting.

“So the dress doesn’t detract from the learning environment," she said.

Adams said what a student is wearing should not allow for "undue attention" that takes away from instruction in the classroom. That includes clothing that has curse words on it or is too revealing. 

However, what is considered offensive can be subjective.

David Hudson is ombudsman for Newseum Institutes' First Amendment Center. He also teaches at the Vanderbilt Law School and the Nashville School of Law. 

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“Dress codes do raise First Amendment issues,” Hudson said, “You do have to have some rules and regulations, but students do retain Free Speech rights in public schools.”

He said courts have ruled that schools can limit student speech that is "vulgar, lewd or plainly offensive." 

But schools cannot limit speech that is “inappropriate or offense, because the terms 'inappropriate' and 'offense' are vague.” He said those two categories are in the eye of the beholder.

"Inappropriate" is really at the heart of the dress code problem for many people, especially female students. Many girls over the past several years have pushed back against dress codes because of the idea they were wearing something that was "distracting to boys."

Author Peggy Orenstein said many girls she spoke with for her book "Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape" expressed outrage at that idea.

“When do boys need to take responsibility?" Orenstein said "Is it when a girl is wearing a miniskirt? Is it when she’s wearing a knee length skirt? Is it when she’s wearing an ankle length skirt? Is it when she’s wearing a burka?” 

However, Orenstein said the issue is complicated by the idea that self-objectification is a way to fight back against those gender-specific rules, but it can be unhealthy idea for young girls. 

She said for boys the dress code issues are different.

“Boys tend to get in trouble with dress codes when they flout authority,” she said, pointing to saggy pants over the past two decades and long hair in the 70s as an example of anti-authority dress code violations.

“Girls get in trouble with dress codes when they’re assumed to be ‘sexy,’” Orenstein said. 

She believes the kind of rules that apply to girls like skirt and short length, strap width and decolletage coverage "pushes girls to look even more than they already do on their bodies" at a young age and "imposes sexuality on girls earlier" than they might otherwise have had it. 

Orenstein said at her teenage girl's school the focus is on clothing that might be a distraction to the student, meaning the student must be able to do all the things they need to during a school day without having to re-adjust their clothing afterwards.

Beyond just what the rules are, Hudson said they have to be "enforced consistently." 

Adams said the district works with principals and school administrations to educate them not only about the rules but following them consistently and dealing with students who are violating a rule respectfully. 

Guests

Kaweeda Adams, Assistant Chief Student Achievement Officer, Clark County School District; Peggy Orenstein, author, "Girls & Sex: Navigating The Complicated New Landscape."; David Hudson, ombudsman, Newseum Institute's First Amendment Center.