Listen to my interview with Coshandra Dillard
and Marcus Campbell (transcript):
A couple months ago, I saw two different news stories that broke my heart. Both were about dreadlocks.
The first story was about Andrew Johnson, a high school wrestler in New Jersey who wore his hair in cheekbone-length dreadlocks. Moments before Johnson was about to go to the mat for a match, the referee told him he wouldn’t be allowed to compete because his hair was too long.
Forced to choose between forfeiting the match for his team or cutting his hair on the spot, Johnson opted for the haircut. In the video taken at the meet, we see Johnson standing stoically while a blond woman takes a large pair of scissors and chops off hunks of his hair, hair that likely took up to a year and hours of maintenance to grow and shape into its current style. With the haircut finished, Johnson took to the mat and won his match.
The video of the incident went viral: Some held up Johnson’s decision as an example of being a team player, while many more expressed outrage and disgust at the referee and all the other adults who let things get as far as they did.
The second story was about Clinton Stanley, Jr., a Florida six-year-old who was turned away at the door on his first day of school because his dreadlocks, which extended below his ears, violated the school’s dress code that required boys’ hair to be cut above their ears and collars.
A photo that looks to have been taken before the incident shows Clinton ready for his first day, eyes shining, a clean, collared shirt pressed and secured with a navy blue necktie, backpack strapped on, red lunchbox in hand. He looks excited, like millions of other kids in their first day of school pictures.
What we see next, in the video taken by his father, is the same child, wearing the same clothes, still carrying his lunchbox, but his eyes are no longer shining. His shoulders sag as he and his father listen to the school staff explain—with a truly disturbing lack of compassion—why he won’t be allowed to start first grade that day.
Dress codes are meant to create safe, positive learning environments in schools, but too many of them have the opposite effect, shaming students, robbing them of instructional time, and disproportionately targeting female students and students of color. The good news is that some schools are stepping up to fix the problem, updating their dress codes to make them more reasonable and equitable.
My hope is that your school will be next in line.
What’s the Problem?
To explore this issue more deeply, I talked with Coshandra Dillard, a writer for Teaching Tolerance who covers equity issues in education, among other things, and wrote about dress codes last year.
Coshandra walked me through some of the most problematic requirements found in many dress codes and helped clarify how they harm kids.
Students like Johnson and Stanley can find themselves humiliated by dress codes that don’t take cultural differences into consideration. Although this can play out with clothing styles, in recent years it seems to have caused the most trouble with hair.
“We’re basically asking these students to erase who they are in order to get an education,” Dillard explains. “And the policing of black hair, especially with young girls, women, has a long history. You can go back to the 1700s when black women in Louisiana were forced to wear head wraps because these elaborate hairstyles they were wearing were considered a threat to society.”
Many schools defend hair policies by saying their guidelines restrict length, not style. But that defense merely points to another problematic cultural norm: one that insists on boys having short hair.
“What is the issue with the length?” Dillard asks. “Can you give me a real reason…? Is it about safety? How is it distracting? Girls have long hair. Is it because it doesn’t fall into the rules of what a male is supposed to look like?”
Other rules that can do unnecessary harm focus on hats and head coverings. Pushout author Monique Morris explained in our 2016 interview that a girl may be wearing a hat to cover braids that haven’t yet been completed. Given the choice between punishment for keeping the unauthorized hat on and being embarrassed in front of her peers, some girls may choose punishment.
Dillard believes that many of these problems could be avoided with simple relationship building.
“That’s part of being a teacher. Know your community, know your students, ask questions if you don’t understand it, and ensure that everybody feels included and feels valued, because if I’m going in the school and my teacher thinks that I am dirty or that I need to be fixed or that I’m unkempt just because my hair is wild and curly, then I’m going to feel some kind of way, and I’m probably not going to learn in that class.”
One of the most common features of traditional dress codes is language that forbids clothing that shows too much skin, even a student’s collarbone in some cases. While the rules technically apply to all students, they tend to overwhelmingly impact girls.
“If we just police what girls are wearing,” Dillard says, “it implies that the onus is on the girl to prevent any kind of inappropriate behavior from someone else because of what she’s wearing. I’m not sure if schools realize how harmful that is to shame or blame girls for how someone may react rather than addressing that issue in particular. There shouldn’t be inappropriate behavior, period.”
How a student expresses gender can also run up against restrictive dress codes, forcing students to align their appearance with other people’s gender expectations. “Does your dress code require that students’ gender expression match their sex assigned at birth?” Dillard asks. “Do you have different rules for male and female students? Because if you do, then the non-binary students are going to feel left out, they’re going to feel awkward.”
One other issue that falls into this category is menstruation. Requiring light-colored clothing can make it harder for menstruating students to cover leaks. “When administrators include in their policy where everybody wears khaki bottoms, whether it’s a skirt or pants or shorts, people who menstruate may have an accident, and that can cause a problem for the student.”
Schools that require students to have specific types or colors of clothing can make it challenging for some families to comply with the dress code. When updating your policy, keep an eye out for rules that could unfairly target students from low-income homes.
“If you’ve had a coat for two years and it’s green,” Dillard says, “and your school colors are red, a mom may not be able to go out and buy something just so he can be in dress code. At private schools where you have to buy the polo tops that have the emblem or the logo of the school on there, that can be cost prohibitive.”
Case Study: Evanston Township High School
In August of 2017, Evanston Township High School in Evanston, Illinois, made significant revisions to their dress code. Assistant Superintendent and Principal Dr. Marcus Campbell had an instrumental role in that change.
Prior to the change, “Our dress code was rather antiquated,” Campbell says. “It looked similar to the dress codes in high schools of the late ‘80s and ‘90s…some of the restrictions that were in the dress code were no longer available in stores. There were lots of kids in the school who didn’t have the appropriate length of shorts; of course they were appropriate to be out in public, but the school’s dress code was a little bit more conservative and restrictive.”
On top of being impractical, Campbell says, the old dress code at ETHS was not being equitably enforced.
“A lot of our students felt—and I agreed with them—that if certain females were not a certain body type, if they had more curves or they had certain features that were developed, they were dress coded over another young lady who may not have the same features but were wearing the exact same items. Our young women of color were dress coded more than our white girls were.”
“So we found it to be racist, we found it to be sexist, we found it to be antiquated. It was not body positive, and there was just trouble all around with our dress code, and we knew we needed to make a change.”
Campbell and his colleagues were prompted to finally take action when students staged a protest outside the superintendent’s office.
“About 300 kids were out there just sitting. They just decided to stage a sit-in to say, somebody’s got to come out here and talk to us about how ridiculous the dress code is.”
Campbell walked outside and met with students right away. “And sitting and talking to the kids about the dress code,” he says, “there was not one thing I could argue with.”
Over the next several months, Campbell and his colleagues met with student leaders, other administrators, and the school’s discipline committee to draft a new policy for ETHS. Starting with the Model Student Dress Code from the National Organization for Women and the Portland Public Schools in Portland, Oregon, they made some changes to fit their own needs and crafted their own brand-new student dress code, which was formally adopted for the 2017-18 school year.
Since the new guidelines were put in place, Campbell says “absolutely nothing has changed as far as behavior. Students have taken it upon themselves to know what’s decent to wear to school and what is not, and so it’s not like we have kids coming to school in bikinis or anything like that. They’re just comfortable.”
If your school is ready to revisit and update your policies for student dress, these excellent resources will help you get started.
About the Issues
DRESS CODED: Black Girls, Bodies, and Bias in D.C. Schools
National Women’s Law Center
This report is specific to D.C. schools, but is applicable everywhere. Offers a thorough overview of the problem and recommendations for revising dress codes. The report also lists guidelines for enforcement. A few of these are so important, I want to note them here:
- Students should never be forced to leave school or the classroom for violating the dress code.
- Schools should require all members of the school community who have the power to enforce the dress code to participate in bias and anti-harassment training at least once a year.
- School police should not be allowed to enforce the dress code.
- Adults should not touch students or their clothing to correct dress code violations, and should not require students to undress in public spaces.
Loc’d Out: How Thoughtless Dress Codes Can Harm Students From Day One
Coshandra Dillard, Teaching Tolerance
How Dress Codes Criminalize Males and Sexualize Females of Color
Alyssa Pavlakis & Rachel Roegman, Phi Delta Kappan
Guidelines for Improved Policies and Practices
Student Dress Code
Evanston Township High School, Evanston, IL
An excellent model of a revised, inclusive dress code. It’s specific enough to avoid loose interpretation but broad enough to allow for a lot of student choice. Lists freedoms along with restrictions, and includes language prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender, gender expression, and sexual orientation.
Model Student Dress Code
National Organization for Women and Portland Public Schools, Portland, OR
Best Practices for Serving LGBTQ Students
Includes guidelines for LGBTQ-inclusive dress codes.
Code of Conduct: A Guide to Responsive Discipline