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Dress Code Drama: What's A Principal To Do?

Imagine you're a principal, walking through the crowded halls of your school. You're on your way to 11th grade chemistry, to watch a science lab. They're expecting you in two minutes.

It already feels like a long day and it's not even lunchtime. You're nearly there, 30 seconds to spare, but then — out of the corner of your eye — you see a student wearing cutoff shorts. And they're really, really short.

What should you do?

Stopping to have a disciplinary chat is probably the last thing you want to do. But, rules are rules, right?

"We don't get into the line of business that we are in because we enjoy enforcing rules," says Erik Burmeister, an assistant superintendent with the Menlo Park school district near San Francisco and a former principal himself.

"The challenge of any administrator is the urgent displacing the important," Burmeister adds. And questions about what students can and can't wear have definitely become urgent.

One big reason: A growing number of students and parents feel that dress codes are biased toward female students. And that has led to complaints and protests around the country.

Among the recent headlines: A high school in North Dakota, where female students complained that changes to the dress code were unfair to girls. Students in Maine wore "crop tops" and other off-limits clothing to protest what they said is a sexist policy.

At Pasadena High School in Southern California, one student summed up the concerns of many: "I'm against the way they presented it to us," sophomore Sophie Manoukian told local television station CBS2. "It's like girls should be ashamed of their bodies. And even though they presented it like it was about equal opportunity for education, it was about how girls can be distracting and pulled out of class to change."

How should these issues be approached? Can they be avoided altogether?

Here are some recommendations from a few administrators I spoke with:

Make Dress Codes Gender-Neutral

Increasingly, the words "gender-neutral dress code" are popping up on school board agendas and at PTA meetings.

"It's a phrase I'm learning about," says Michael Allison, president of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. "I think we'll be seeing a lot of changes at schools around the country in the next few years."

The dress code Burmeister created a few years ago, when he was a principal, was gender-neutral. It listed five simple "norms" for students, starting with the most important: "All students must be covered from mid-thigh to top of chest in non-see-through materials."

The response was positive, he says. And it shifted the discussion from conflict to cooperation. "As a society changes, our schools need to change as well, but that conversation doesn't need to be parents and students pitted against schools."

Debbie Brockett, the principal of Las Vegas High School in Nevada, says she doesn't believe any rule should be enforced unless it can be applied to the guys as well as the girls.

"One of our guys showed up to school with a really deep V-neck shirt, and I asked him to change. I wouldn't have let a girl get away with it, so I won't let him get away with it."

Another reason for a gender-neutral approach, she adds: It avoids embarrassment for transgender students. "Not one person gives them a hard time."

Ask Yourself: Why Does That Rule Exist?

"There was a rule in place, for whatever reason, that girls couldn't wear leggings," Brockett recalls. "We found ourselves fighting the leggings without any of us knowing why."

She didn't see how leggings would keep a student from learning. So, with the agreement of her school board, she got rid of the rule.

That point, about learning, came up when Burmeister fought the leggings battle, too. "We need to have dress code rules that actually have relevance," he says. "We didn't see an inability to focus because we said students could now wear leggings."

Involve The Students

"One of the things I advocate for the most is respecting student voice and getting students involved in decision-making," says Allison of the NASSP. "I want to encourage all principals to have an active dialogue with their student body."

What does that "active dialogue" look like?

For Marilyn Boerke it involved the leggings issue, in reverse.

She's the principal of Liberty Middle School in Camas, Wash. Her students were upset they couldn't wear ripped jeans. So she invited some students to her office and they reached a compromise: If the students wore leggings underneath, they could wear jeans with as many rips as they wanted.

The solution may seem obvious or simplistic, she says, but the students were excited that their voices had been heard.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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