What Is Your School’s Dress Code Telling Students?

What will it take for our schools—all schools—to fully commit to being places where every child is valued?

That’s not a rhetorical question. Last month, a Great Hearts charter school in San Antonio asked eighth-grade students to analyze the “positive” and “negative” aspects of slavery, as part of a worksheet called “The Lives of Slaves: A Balanced View.” The school network apologized, but only after a parent posted the worksheet on Facebook.

It’s not an isolated incident. Also in recent news, a twelve-year-old boy was sent home from a Phoenix school in the same network because his hairstyle—braids—violated the network’s “grooming policies.” Though school administrators later reversed their decision and invited him back to class, the boy’s mother opted to pull her son from the school.

It’s an unfortunate and clear pattern. But this isn’t just about Great Hearts, nor is it about a few charter schools or a few district schools here or there. Schools of every stripe—charter, district, parochial, and private—make choices routinely about policies, materials, and even staffing that send clear signals to students and their families about the school community and who is welcome there. These kind of incidents take place far too often, and it's time they stop.


Uniform policies, for example, that differentiate between boys and girls can place trans and gender-nonconforming students at risk. Likewise, male/female dress codes for events like school proms can exclude students who don't feel either dress code fits with their identity, as happened recently at a Memphis high school. Rules that prohibit students from speaking their home languages send students the message that their culture, their gifts, are not accepted. Schools that are staffed with 99 percent White teachers and administrators reinforce a narrow definition of “leadership” for students and families. (We already know that Black students are more likely to be referred to gifted programs if they have a Black teacher, among other tangible benefits of a more diverse teacher workforce. But far too many students of color will go all the way through their K-12 experience without a single teacher who shares their background.)

Together, choices like these send a clear message to students: You need to change in order to excel here. When we tell students they have to be this or look like that to succeed here, we are using our power to minimize and dehumanize young people. Not only is that wrong, but it’s also systematically keeping students down. After all, how can we expect our students to step up as leaders in their schools and communities if the message they’re receiving is that they are not good enough as they are?

So what can schools do differently? Part of this starts with all educators—not just teachers but everyone whose work affects children’s learning, from the school to the district level—reflecting on the implicit biases they bring to their work, and how those biases affect their choices. If Starbucks can close their stores for implicit bias training, surely schools can do the same. New York City recently committed $23 million to providing anti-bias training for the district's educators; other school systems should follow suit. 

From there, school and district leaders need to look closely at their materials and their policies through a lens of equity and inclusivity. Are curricular materials honoring and representing the lives and experiences of all students? Are discipline policies necessary to keep children safe, or do they send a message that compliance matters above all else? Do rules and regulations help break down barriers to learning—or do they impose new ones, by making certain children feel singled out, less accepted, and less valued?

Parents and students themselves can be valuable allies in answering these questions. Why not convene a working group of educators, students, and family members to have a conversation—or open that conversation up to the entire school community via social media, surveys, or forums?


Change is already afoot: Some schools are choosing to change or reverse hairstyle policies, following pushback from students and families. Others are pushing back against rigid discipline policies that disproportionately affect Black students, and exploring alternatives like restorative justice. (And in many cases, charter schools—which have often perpetuated harsh disciplinary policies—are leading these conversations.) The Department of Education’s 2016 letter on transgender students stated that all students have the right to dress in a way that reflects their gender identity.

In other words, we can do better by students—and in some places, we already are. But we have to start asking hard questions about what really matters for student success. We have to be honest about why we’ve made certain choices, and what those choices say to young people and their families.

The bottom line? All schools need to check their bias at the door. Not every school is going to be the right fit for every child. But we must maintain a certain bar for inclusivity: all schools should be places where students are lifted up, not pushed down. Anything less is just not good enough.


Further reading: The New York Times asked students to weigh in on their school dress codes, among other topical issues. Explore their comments.

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