The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 115
Jennifer Gonzalez, Host
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 lunch box 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.
In this episode, I’m going to be talking with two different people about this issue. First is Coshandra Dillard, a writer for Teaching Tolerance who covers equity issues in education, among other things. Coshandra walks me through some of the most problematic requirements found in many dress codes and helps clarify how they harm kids.
Next, I talk with Dr. Marcus Campbell, Assistant Superintendent and Principal of Evanston Township High School in Evanston, Illinois. In August of 2017, Evanston made significant revisions to their dress code, and Dr. Campbell had an instrumental role in that change. We’ll talk about the process his district went through to make the update, what the most significant changes were, and how things have been going since the revised dress code was put in place.
At the end of the episode, I’ll share some resources you and your school can use to start the process of updating your own dress code.
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Now let’s talk about dress codes.
My first guest is Coshandra Dillard, staff writer at Teaching Tolerance.
GONZALEZ: I’d like to welcome Coshandra Dillard to the podcast. Thanks for coming on.
DILLARD: Thank you for having me.
GONZALEZ: I asked you to come on here because I wanted some help talking about the issue of dress codes. I think they’re part of a larger problem of discipline policies in schools that tend to target some populations over others.
GONZALEZ: But for this episode I really wanted to just drill right down into dress codes, so that schools can start taking a look at what might be problematic in their own.
GONZALEZ: And so, and I asked you because you’ve written about this topic a couple of times, and so I thought you’d be a really good guide for discussing some of these particulars.
GONZALEZ: I know that a lot of schools, they see kids sometimes making clothing choices that they find to be inappropriate or disruptive to the school day. And so I think a lot of schools have tried to craft language that is going to hit just the right note, but I think a lot of schools are just missing some pieces that are, they don’t realize what it’s doing to impact kids from certain populations.
GONZALEZ: So I thought what we could do is maybe just start going through certain areas and some specific rules that are really causing problems and talk about why these are discriminatory in the first place.
GONZALEZ: So what we did is we sort of got these broken into three groups: rules that discriminate on cultural basis, rules that discriminate along gender lines, and then some that are even economically discriminatory.
GONZALEZ: So in the list of cultural issues, cultural problems in dress codes, the first one was dreadlocks. There are schools that have rules against specific hairstyles, like dreadlocks, braids. I’ve even seen some schools that have a rule against large afros. And so talk a little bit about why these types, it sort of seems very obvious to me, but talk a little bit about what the problem is with those types of rules.
DILLARD: Well the new stories that I’ve seen that go viral tend to be centered around a black student’s hairstyle, it may be culturally relevant to them. So you’re singling out a group of students based on their cultural, their heritage, or their ancestral roots, which is problematic to say the least. We’re basically asking these students to erase who they are in order to get an education. And the policing of black hair, especially with young girls, women, has a long history. I mean you can go back to the 1700s when black women in Louisiana were forced to wear head wraps because these elaborate hairstyles that they were wearing were considered a threat to society. So just imagine thinking that a person’s beauty is offensive.
I think in the news more recently I think it’s been centered on dreadlocks, because a lot of people are starting to wear that more here in the United States. And it was a little personal for me too, because I have locks, so when the video, I think it was a little boy, I don’t remember the state, it may have been Florida. But he was getting turned away at the front door on the first day of school. So I couldn’t imagine putting myself in his shoes. I don’t know how I would have handled that when I was a young girl, imagining being crushed to think that the way I wore my hair as a symbol of my ancestral pride would be an infringement on school policy.
So at the root of that is, you know, we have these arbitrary guidelines that don’t consider a person’s identity, their cultural background. You know, there wasn’t even, I’m assuming, conversations around, you know, the differences in how people style their hair and the history that may be tied to it. And I think if you set your schools up in a way that is welcoming and inclusive of all cultures and everyone’s identity, you probably wouldn’t run into that problem and you probably wouldn’t have a policy that excludes something like that.
DILLARD: At the very basic level, we’re punishing kids and we’re shaming them for how they are naturally, and I think if we had some kind of cultural awareness at the very basic level, that schools would have a conversation about these differences and how they can make their policies more inclusive of students because of their race or their gender or their cultural or ancestral background. If you take those into consideration, if you already operate from a standard of everyone is safe, everyone is welcomed, everybody is included, then things like that wouldn’t happen.
GONZALEZ: What do we say to people who say, look, the rule is not against, I’m thinking in both of these cases, actually, what the schools were saying is, our rule is not against dreadlocks, our rule is against length and we just wanted these boys to have their at a certain — you know, all boys they say had to have their hair at a certain, like, couldn’t touch the collar or whatever it was. What do we say back to that if they’re saying it’s fine to have the dreadlocks, but you just have to cut them? What does cutting dreadlocks mean to someone who has — well, first of all, let’s share with people how long it actually takes to grow and develop dreadlocks in the first place, and why is that more than just a haircut?
DILLARD: It takes a big commitment. So if it’s already to the, if it’s shoulder-length already, if you have locks, you’ve been growing them for a few years probably. And it takes a lot of grooming and upkeep to keep them healthy and get them there, and you can’t just comb them out. They have to be cut out, most of them, because it’s basically matted hair that’s been twisted together and it grows that way eventually. So to have someone say, cut this off, and you’ve been growing them — in addition to the time and the commitment you made to it, it’s also a symbol of your pride in who you are and a lot of people who grow locks, it’s in resistance to assimilating into dominant white culture.
You know, we’re told you have to have your hair straight or it’s not professional. It has to be neat, and this is not perceived as professional and neat in some cases, and I believe there was even some court cases where they decided that employers could discriminate or not hire people based on them having dreadlocks. So it’s pretty deep for people kind of navigating through that.
But as for the length, I would ask school administrators why, what is the issue with the length? Like, can you give me a real reason what that does? Is it about safety? Is it about, I know a lot of times they say “distraction,” how is that distracting? Girls have long hair. Is it more about, is it because it doesn’t fall into the rules of what a male is supposed to look like? And that’s a whole other issue if we’re trying to go by gender roles.
GONZALEZ: Right, right. It’s got more to do with just a preference and maybe even like a white dominated cultural history where these are the norms that we’re used to. And I know that certain teachers, they just sort of have an idea of what proper appearance should be, and now would be a time to start questioning that.
DILLARD: Right. And that could be pretty subjective, and I think that’s where you need to have conversations within the school and within the community; that way, everybody feels included.
GONZALEZ: While we’re still on the topic of cultural discrimination, Monique Morris, the author of “Pushout,” I interviewed her a couple of years ago, and she made me aware of something I really was not aware of: a lot of schools have got rules against hats or head scarves or hair wraps or doo rags or anything like that. And she was talking to me about black girls who might be in the middle of getting their hair braided and actually wanting to cover up their hair because it wasn’t done yet, and they could end up getting suspended over the refusal to take a hat off.
DILLARD: I hadn’t thought about that issue of wearing the hats in between getting your hair done, but I relate completely. You know, before I had locks, there’s this time where either as a way to protect your hair or you just don’t, it’s a bad hair day and you have new growth and you just want to hide that.
DILLARD: I think that teachers should, I mean if you have a relationship with your students, if you’re having conversations with them and getting to know who they are at the very basic level, you would have an understanding of these cultural, diversity of culture where I know that her hair has a different texture, I know that she has to do X, Y, and Z just to prepare to get to school every day, and I want to be mindful of that and not impose some kind of punishment or some kind of rule that would prohibit her from coming to school or feeling shamed or feeling like she needs to be fixed.
And I think that’s at the source of, or the bottom of all of this is the way we’re reacting to young black girls’ hair and how they maintain their hair as something that’s wrong that has to be fixed, this is how it grew out of their head. So there’s not a lot that they can do about it other than just to keep it clean and keep it groomed, as they do. So you just have to know your community. But that’s part of being a teacher. Know your community, know your students, ask questions if you don’t understand it, just ask questions, 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 have, I’m going to feel some kind of way, and I’m probably not going to learn in that class.
GONZALEZ: Absolutely. Well and would think that some kids, in order to avoid that conflict to begin with, are just staying home. We don’t even necessarily always know the reasons kids miss school, and if I’m a seventh grade girl and I’m feeling self-conscious about my hair that day, then I just may not go. I might pretend to get sick or something like that, and we want kids to be in school.
DILLARD: Right, exactly. And that’s, I mean, that’s the most important piece is having all these side issues that, you know, kids, they have feelings, they have emotions. So if they’re thinking about this, it’s just disruptive.
GONZALEZ: They’re not concentrating on academics at all.
GONZALEZ: So let’s move to gender and policies that tend to target one gender over another. There’s language in a lot of dress codes about distracting styles and things being too short or too low cut or strapless or the bra showing. And so talk a little bit about how these rules can tend to be discriminatory.
DILLARD: I think it does a couple of things. I think it could body shame, and it can also play into gender-based shaming and it can also play into rape culture. Because we assume that if we just police what girls are wearing that, I mean 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. And 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.
And as you know, it’s even more harmful for black girls because we already know that it, that they tend to get more harshly reprimanded in schools and in the justice system for doing the same things that their white counterparts would do. And just like with the hair, their bodies are over-policed as well, whether they have developed differently or they have curves. They’re a target. I know at the time that the locks story came out, the boy that was turned away at the door, there was also a story out of California where, I think it was the San Francisco Bay Area, if I believe. There was a group of students who came up with the idea to say, let’s do away with the dress code that we have and just wear what we want, and the school approved it. So they can wear hats, shirts, they can show their midriffs, they can wear ripped jeans, they can wear athletic wear, leggings, tank tops, all this stuff that most schools will say are a no-no. And a lot of schools will say that some of those things are too distracting and against the dress code. Well I think students and some schools are starting to realize that these arbitrary rules are doing more harm, and they’re listening to students who are demanding a more fair and inclusive policy, and it doesn’t push students out of school or into some of punishment or shame them for just having a body. And at that California school, of course they did lay down some rules like we can’t display hate messages or violent speech or anything profane, visible underwear, that type of thing. But at the very core of it though, the policy recognizes that, you know, they have autonomy over their own body, and if there’s any issue related to how they’re dressed, then that’s a separate issue about behavior and about the entitlement of someone to interrupt your space. But yeah, that’s at least one good example of people pushing back and saying that if I show my stomach at school, it doesn’t mean that I can’t learn, and it shouldn’t distract anybody else from learning. And before that happened there was a school in Texas, they faced a lot of backlash, because they made a video that basically shamed girls. They were called, I think it was dress code violators, and the video was set to a song called “Bad Girls,” and it was basically wagging their finger at the dress code violators and showing them what was appropriate and not appropriate to wear to school, and I think the biggest thing was athletic shorts, and I don’t know what the deal was with athletic shorts, maybe they were too short or too thin, I don’t know.
GONZALEZ: Short, yeah.
DILLARD: But thankfully though there was a lot of backlash, and they ended up apologizing for that video, but it just goes to show. And they didn’t go into what was inappropriate for boys. They continued to wear athletic shorts, so it was a double standard and it was very gender-biased. It’s just kind of all-around playing into that rape culture that you have to present yourself a certain way in order to be appropriate and be respected.
GONZALEZ: Where would you say the line is for, and I’ve looked now, I’ve looked at some sample revised dress codes, and I think they’re doing a good job of defining that, but I’m just curious about your opinion. Trying to think now, like, somebody who’s just, you know, pretty old school and says, does that mean that we’re supposed to just let girls come with their boobs hanging out and their butts hanging out of the bottom of shorts, and can they wear anything at all? Like is there a line that schools who are revising their policies can still draw in terms of just, I don’t know, not nudity but near nudity? Or is it just supposed to be anything goes really?
DILLARD: I don’t think it’s anything goes. I think, obviously what the school in California did is that they considered what was visible underwear and something that was profane or any kind of violent messages. I guess every school would, it would depend on the community, but some of the things that historically have been included in dress codes have to do with the color of your hair. You know, it can’t be purple or green or red or something like that, and the boys can’t wear long hair or they can’t wear earrings. I think things like that, things that are subjective in some people’s eyes is not appropriate is what’s changing. I don’t think they’re ready to step over to say, just wear what you want, and we won’t scrutinize it. But I think it’s, it’s a good momentum right now.
GONZALEZ: Let’s talk a little bit too about just, about gender roles, in particular when we’ve got students who are non-binary or students who are maybe transitioning. How do these rules end up interfering with those kids and their learning?
DILLARD: We happen to have a very great guide that addresses that, Best Practices for Serving LGBTQ Students. It has to do with school climate and checking your policies to ensure that it’s fair and it’s standard and it doesn’t marginalize or discriminate against these students, because they may not fall into that, the traditional gender role. They may be binary, they may be transgendered, and they have a right to express their gender as they wish regardless of how people may see them. So I believe in that guide there is a sample dress code that they captured in there. I forget what school it is, but it kind of lays out, does your dress code use words like respectable, revealing, provocative, distracting. Do girls get more violations than the boys? Does your dress code require that students express, that the gender expression match their sex assigned at birth? Those are some things that you can ask yourself when administrators are making these policies is making sure that it’s inclusive. Does it 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. We talk about prom, there’s a lot of rules about prom and, you know, girls or people who are perceived as girls can only wear dresses and that type of thing. So I think it was Portland public schools, their dress code policy was a good example that we used in that, and they showed that, and they have the basic guidelines, you have to wear a shirt, you have to wear pants or bottoms, you have to wear shoes. But it’s not about making your uniform or your dress code identical to what the outside world may see as appropriate.
DILLARD: It’s about you being comfortable and you being, you expressing your gender and expressing who you are.
GONZALEZ: Speaking of comfort, before we move past gender, let’s just address the issue of menstruation too, which you just published an article on menstruation and how we need to be looking more at how we keep our menstruating students more sort of comfortable and able to continue learning. And so this also impacts some dress codes out there that require certain types of clothing. So help us understand that issue too inside the dress code issue.
DILLARD: One of the things I found in the research, one of the schools that had received a lot of criticism because girls or people who menstruated were bleeding through their clothing, and they already had some restricted bathroom policies. You know, they were allowed to go to the bathroom, of course, but sometimes they had to look for a person to take them to the bathroom or they had to wait. I mean it was, at the risk of, if you have to go to the bathroom to take care of that while you’re on your menstrual cycle, you may have an accident, and with young girls or anyone who menstruates, you know that it can come on suddenly, especially if you don’t realize what your cycle is yet, so you’ll bleed through your clothes. Now if you are wearing light-colored pants like khakis, like a lot of school, whether it’s public, private, or charter, they include in their dress code that they have to wear khaki, but no other alternative to that. Then it can be more obvious if you bleed through those clothes, and that’s embarrassing.
And then there’s the issue of well, if we had a basic understanding of what the menstrual cycle is and that we have equitable sex education then maybe that wouldn’t even be embarrassing and we wouldn’t stigmatize it, but nonetheless, if you soil your clothes, you don’t want people to know that you’ve soiled your clothes. So if you have a darker pair of pants, if that’s an option, that would kind of help, at least, save you from that embarrassment. And I don’t think when people, when administrators include that in their policy where everybody wears khaki bottoms, whether it’s a skirt or pants or shorts, then they’ll consider that people who menstruate may have an accident, especially if there’s already restrictive bathroom policy, and that can cause a problem for the student. They could stay at home, they can get worried that, well, I might get my period today, so I might stay home because I don’t want to deal with fighting to get to the bathroom, and then having to put a shirt around my pants, and everybody knows why I’m doing that. So that’s something that I probably didn’t think about before I started writing the story, but I remember being a teenager in high school and not, you know, being worried about any kind of accidents showing through my clothes if that happened.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. That’s like for any girl, you know, between the ages of like 10 and 18, that’s like your constant fear all the time that that’s going to happen in school. And you hear horror stories about it happening to people and that just intensifies the worry about it.
DILLARD: It does. It’s very distracting. Who can think and who can learn if you feel, you know, like everybody’s watching you, because it’s already stigmatized, the whole issue of menstrual, the menstrual cycle is already stigmatized. Nobody wants to talk about it. We learn about it separately, you know, by gender, and we look at it as something that needs to be fixed, something that needs to be cleaned up rather than this is a natural process that everybody, half the population goes through. So we have that foundation, we already have that history, so to put on top of that, you know, not addressing what can happen if this happens at school, then we’re missing a whole, we’re letting down a lot of students, half the population of the school.
GONZALEZ: So before we wrap up, let’s just also just add that there’s some economic discrimination happening inside some dress codes that are just built in that maybe people that create them never really considered before. And so does anything come to mind along those lines?
DILLARD: Yeah. I think about, I know a lot of schools kind of go to the uniform so they can remedy that issue where everybody wears the same color bottoms and tops, you know, polo shirts. But the thing that I have seen with some schools, and I have sons myself, so I remember that if you’re going to wear a coat or a sweater or a jacket, it has to be like the school colors or the color of your uniform. So that can be prohibitive if you’ve had a coat for two years and it’s green, and your school colors are red, you know, a mom may not be able to go out and buy something just so he can be in dress code, you know. So that’s one issue, and a lot of times too, especially 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. You know, you can go to a department store and get five or 10 polo shirts for $7 each, but if you get something that’s embroidered, that’s going to cost you a lot more. That’s the only thing I can think about is, you know, is just requiring, it’s one thing to make it an option, but if you require students to buy certain things, then you’re going to run into some issues where you don’t want to get into where a student’s getting picked on because they don’t have, you know, the best uniform or the best coat or the best sweater. Then you’re talking about kids who don’t want to come to school or who get punished because there’s some kind of issue at school related to that.
GONZALEZ: Right, right. You know, and one thing that I noticed in some of the dress codes I looked at or some of the articles about dress codes, just had to do with how they were even being implemented. If a student violated the dress code, then the penalty would be that they’d have to go home and change and that automatically is going to set up a problem for families where, you know, parents are working during the day. They’re not able to just take off and get their kids or the kids don’t have transportation to get home. I read a story about a girl who had to take two buses to get home to change for dress code. So that just ruined her whole school day. She was out the whole day.
DILLARD: Another thing that I remember is belts. A lot of times students will get reprimanded, they go to in-school suspension or even get suspended if they come to school without their belts so many times. It’s something I never really understood. And then we get into the whole school-to-prison pipeline where you’re setting kids up to be in this very punitive environment, and then they, I mean it just kind of escalates or dominoes because at the very beginning all they did was not wear a belt or not do something that was, that matched the dress code, and that’s not enough to put somebody into a situation where they’re out of school, where they could find more trouble, where they can get in trouble in school with a school resource officer. So there’s just so many implications to that. Maybe ask the student, why don’t you have a belt? Or have some belts available in school for people who probably lost their belt or they couldn’t afford to buy a belt. You just have to ask questions and make it equitable for everybody.
GONZALEZ: Right, right. Is there anything else that you wanted to add on this topic?
DILLARD: I think you’ve kind of covered everything. I think the bottom line is when you’re thinking about school dress codes and hair policies, I think administrators have to ask themselves why are we doing this? Does this make students safer? Is it inclusive of everybody? Does it reduce or erase harm? Or is it causing harm? Is it keeping kids out of school? I think if you can’t answer those questions, then you probably have to go back to the drawing board, and I think we have to also keep in mind when these situations about dress codes and hair come up in school, it almost, or at least disproportionately affects black students. So we’re pushing a whole group of kids out of school or we’re robbing them of an education just because they’re just a target. I know a couple of years ago there was an article or a study published actually about the adultification of black girls and how they’re more punished in, not just in schools but also in the system, the criminal justice system, because we see them as adults rather than as growing children. And if you rob them of their innocence, whether it’s through their body, body shaming or issues with their hair or that you assume that they’re older than what they are, then you feel like they don’t need the support, that they don’t need, that they’re not vulnerable, and that’s something I think we need to focus on too is making sure that black students, all students of color have the same nurturing, the same protection and support and comfort as their white counterparts, because they’re, in most cases, they’re the ones who are getting punished for some of these rules.
GONZALEZ: Thank you so much for sharing all of this with us. It’s been a big help.
DILLARD: Thank you. I hope I answered everything correctly.
GONZALEZ: Oh, absolutely.
DILLARD: I hope it was some help to you.
Thanks again to Coshandra for helping us take a closer look at this issue.
My second guest is Dr. Marcus Campbell, Assistant Superintendent and Principal of Evanston Township High School in Evanston, Illinois. Evanston’s story is a great model for how school leaders can go about updating their own dress codes.
GONZALEZ: So if you could just tell me a little bit about what Evanston’s dress code was like before you made this change.
CAMPBELL: Before the change our dress code was rather antiquated. It looked similar to the dress codes in high schools of the late ‘80s and then the ‘90s so much so to that where some of the restrictions that were in the dress code were no longer available in stores.
GONZALEZ: Oh wow.
CAMPBELL: And we found ourselves in a position where we could not enforce the dress code that was on our books. So we were trying to figure out exactly what to do with that.
GONZALEZ: Okay. So apart from — can you give me an example of something that wasn’t available in stores?
CAMPBELL: Oh, we’re talking about like the length of shorts, that shorts would have to come down, for young ladies or people who are presenting female, right, down to their, certain part of their, above the knee.
CAMPBELL: Well there weren’t, there are shorts that’ll do that, even for young men, shorts are 7 inches, 5 inches, and they’re getting shorter and shorter.
CAMPBELL: Still appropriate or what is considered appropriate for, if you’re going to play a game of soccer or just want to be cool in the summertime. The shorts of the old days that come down to the knee just aren’t around anymore.
GONZALEZ: Right. Did you have any other problems in the system that sort of made you think it was time for a change apart from just availability of certain things?
CAMPBELL: Oh absolutely. Our dress code, No. 1, it was as I said, it was unenforceable. We have over 3,000 students, over 3,600 students in this high school, and on a day in the Chicagoland area where it’s 93 degrees outside, people want to be comfortable. And there were lots of kids in the school who didn’t have the appropriate length of shorts and other items they had on. Of course they were appropriate for, to be out in public, but the school’s dress code was a little bit more conservative and restrictive based on the amount of skin showing, I guess. And then it was also not equitably enforced. A lot of our students felt, and I agreed with them, that if certain females were not a certain body type, then they were, and I say “dress coded” I use that as a verb —
CAMPBELL: — sent to the dean’s office, so 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.
GONZALEZ: Yep, yep.
CAMPBELL: And then our young women of color, which say to me that our students of color were dress coded more than our white girls were.
CAMPBELL: 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.
GONZALEZ: So were the students the ones who sort of really got your attention on this, or what prompted you to start looking at making a change?
CAMPBELL: Well, I always knew that our dress code needed to be updated, but I really didn’t know what to do nor know about how to go about the change. But I knew there was something, as the principal, right, and someone who is in charge of the daily operations of the district and the school, I knew it’s something that we needed to address. But one day our students were just fed up with how they were being treated, and they staged a protest outside of the superintendent’s office.
GONZALEZ: Oh wow.
CAMPBELL: I would say maybe 10 or 12 percent of the kids, about 300 kids who 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. And of course I was the one designated to go talk to the kids, which I’m fine. I have a great relationship with the kids. Our students are actually very wonderful to work with. And I said, sure, I’ll talk to you. And sitting and talking to the kids about the dress code, there was not one thing I could argue with. And when we made the change and we became, we adopted the model dress code of the National Organization of Women, the Oregon chapter wrote a model dress code for schools, we adopted that, we made a few adjustments to that, and nothing has changed about our school day. Like absolutely nothing has changed as far as behavior and as far as what’s appropriate. 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. But they’re just comfortable, and we have not had any incidents of kids violating the dress code. So I said all that to say, the students had an idea in their minds what needed to happen, and so we worked with them to make it happen, and because they were already doing it, nothing has changed about the school day.
GONZALEZ: Right. Did you, did you, when you actually sat down to sort of decide on what the new policy was going to look like, did you assemble a small group of students on a committee of some sort or did you just, how did you actually, I mean you told me where you got that, but who decided, ultimately, to borrow that language, adapt it, and were the students involved in that process?
CAMPBELL: Well our students have been involved the entire way. The moment that they staged a protest, I met with student leaders throughout the school year. I would say that protest was in October, and we made proposed recommendations to change the dress code in May. So schools have a little bit of bureaucracy just like every other agency does.
CAMPBELL: And that conversation needed to be had with other adults. It needed to be taken through our discipline committee, it needed to be looked at with other administrators and other groups, and so at the end of the day, after students proposed the kinds of things that they wanted in the dress code, simultaneously our communications director at the time and others, we began to sort of look to see what other schools were doing, and we found that the National Organization of Women, we found that model dress code, it sort of had everything we needed, what the students wanted, and it also had some things in there that we thought were pretty important to make a comprehensive change to our dress code policy.
GONZALEZ: Right. Did you get any pushback from teachers or parents on this change?
CAMPBELL: No pushback. I think that the only, there were concerns, the concerns were, “Oh, the kids are just going to come to school and they’re not going to be wearing any clothes.” That never happened, that never happened. “Oh, the kids are just going to be in the hall with their hoodie and hats on. We’re not going to be able to tell who they are.” That hasn’t happened. So there were just weird sort of respectability politics that played into their concerns, and all of which have not come to pass. I was talking to a teacher the other day who took a group of students to a lab, and they had to dress professionally, and every kid dressed professionally. So don’t say, “The kids have to come to school so they know how to dress in the real world.”
CAMPBELL: Well, if you tell kids how to dress, they’ll do that, you know.
GONZALEZ: They can do it, yeah. Yeah.
CAMPBELL: I think it’s really believing and trusting the kids and have the expectation that they will do what is best because they always do, and that’s what we found here at ETHS, and I’ve been very proud of the students’ response to this. One kid who identifies as Latinx, he wore a sombrero to school for the first day, because he got to wear a hat. Because that was a big part of our dress code, no hats. And so now kids wear hats, and they wear them because they’re trying to be stylish, not because they’re affiliated with a gang.
GONZALEZ: Right, right. So if we’re talking to a, if a principal out there right now is listening and is thinking about doing this, do you have any advice for them moving forward if they’re going to look at their dress code?
CAMPBELL: I would say get your students and get your community involved, because a lot of people have strong feelings about this, and there’s a way to write dress codes that are gender equitable, right? You cannot, this is not, I’ve told our staff, you know, that if, people were saying, “Oh, if the girls come to school and their shoulders are out,” or whatever, “then it’s going to distract the boys.” And I as a man said, it is up for the boys to manage their own distractions. You can’t put that burden on our young women, right?
CAMPBELL: That is the, that is very tangential to rape culture and all these other kinds of things that we put on women that’s not their fault. So I think having those kinds of conversations, what the principal should have with their students and should have with their families and the community about how to make dress codes gender equitable and if the school is racially diverse, racially equitable so that no, and body positive, right?
GONZALEZ: Right, right.
CAMPBELL: Because this is a time where kids are going through a lot with their self-image and things like that, and there’s a way to write language, and there’s a way to look at these kinds of issues that are asset-framed and that benefit and center students and not the adults and what they think is respectable or not.
GONZALEZ: Right. Thank you so much. This is fantastic. Is it okay for me to link people to your current dress code, so they can see that as a model?
CAMPBELL: Absolutely, absolutely. And we’ve been talking at high schools and districts all over the country —
GONZALEZ: I bet.
CAMPBELL: — about doing this, and a lot of have chosen to follow us and some principals have said, “We want our kids to come to school dressed appropriately,” whatever that means.
CAMPBELL: So you know, but yes, be happy to do that.
GONZALEZ: Okay, all right. Dr. Campbell, thank you so much for helping us understand your process.
CAMPBELL: All right, no, thank you so much for having me.
GONZALEZ: I hope this episode has convinced a lot of school leaders to revisit and revise their policies for student dress. If your school is ready to get started, I’ve put together a list of resources on Cult of Pedagogy that can help.
One of these is a report put out in 2018 by the National Women’s Law Center. It’s called DRESS CODED: Black Girls, Bodies, and Bias in D.C. Schools. Although the report is specific to D.C. schools, it’s applicable everywhere, offering a thorough overview of the problem and recommendations for revising dress codes.
The report also lists guidelines for dress code enforcement. A few of these are so important that I want to note them here just in case you don’t end up downloading the guide:
- 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.
Another resource I’m including is the revised dress code for Evanston Township High School, the school I talked about with Dr. Campbell. It’s an excellent model of a revised, inclusive dress code: specific enough to avoid loose interpretation but broad enough to allow for a lot of student choice. The document lists freedoms along with restrictions, and specifies nondiscrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender, gender expression, and sexual orientation.
For links to both of these and other helpful resources, along with the videos I mentioned earlier, visit cultofpedagogy.com, click podcast, and choose episode 115. To get a weekly email from me about my newest blog posts, podcast episodes, and products, sign up for my mailing list at cultofpedagogy.com/subscribe. Thanks so much for listening, and have a great day.