There has been press coverage for some time of strange tales. Tales of schools sending students home or forcing them to don off-brand apparell when they violate the school dress code. I’d like to delve into this a bit.
First, I did attend a private high school with a strict but reasonable code (slacks and dress shoes were always required, shirt and tie from 1 October through 30 April, collared shirts were always a must. Frankly, I liked it. It made me feel “professional” for lack of a better word. I am not a fan of conformity, but our dress code gave us a sense of equivalency (and still allowed for some individualism … trout ties were a thing back then). That said, I know that just because something worked for me doesn’t make it the only path for everyone. Today, as a teacher, I am one of a handful of teachers who wear shirt and tie almost every day, and when I am occasionally ridiculed for it, I think that my job is one that is still professional (for how long, who knows?), and that a shirt and tie is a must.
Having said that,I’m going to explain why I generally support school dress codes, even if a lot of schools are doing it all wrong.
First, let me address the reasons that are really bad:
- Schools do this to enforce control on students. This is a great thing if you want kids to learn to hate their schools and communities, and its great as a tool for teaching kids that “different is bad”. Especially in insular communities, it is a good way to enforce local conformity.
- It distracts sexually observant teens. This reason comes up a lot, and while guys with their underwear hanging out still pops up in some inner city settings, most of this is really about protecting boys from cleavage and too many curves spilling out from the wrong place, which I guess might cause a riot. I was too young to be affected, but our entire society survived that Farrah Fawcet poster in the 1970’s, so I side with those who say this is poor reasoning.
- Even if it isn’t sexual, per se, it might be distracting. SCOTUS has been pretty darn clear that while students do have a degree of first amendment protection, once the school determines that a quasi-legit to wholly legit distraction to learning is possible, it is time to clamp down, and the courts have generally supported this. While I would argue that some schools impose this judgment properly, there are certainly those that play this card far too often.
Let’s throw those bad reasons out. I will make the following as an argument for some reasonable limits, that include some of the tight and skimpy and uunderwear-baring outfits.
First, whether anyone agrees or not, society has saddled schools with the “preparing students for their futures” thing. We can argue that this is a parents’ job or that government is overstepping its bounds, and those are good arguments to have, but for now, I think it is not undeniable that this has become the purview of the school. Certainly, in the past, schools had far tighter control on dress (the public school I work at required long pants for young men and dresses for young ladies until 1980!) I would argue that part of that mission is to prepare students how to function beyond the school (even if our data driven culture is increasingly creating schools that are more and more insular and less and less like the real world). To tie this up in a bow: schools do have a degree of reasonable responsibility to prepare students for what comes next, and at least part of that is for students to clearly understand that your choice in clothing carries a consequence.
More and more, business schools are requiring students to attend class in professional attire. We are certainly not a college or a business school (President Obama may disagree with that last point), but we certainly do realize that some of our students are not necessarily going to college (another point President Obama will disagree with us on), and as such, this is their one opportunity to prepare for going out into the job-seeking world, and being able to out-perform other people. Some of us may argue that it is not right for a future employer to judge us too much on our clothing, but we also understand that this is a reality. I don’t think it is too much to tell guys that baring their underwear is not always acceptable, nor is baring your cleavage or shapely derriere. If nothing else, it sets up a very reasonable expectation of our society: there are times you get to dress exactly as you please, and there are times that dressing as you please carries consequences.
One of the issues that prompted this writing was a conversation I had with a colleague who teaches in the Chicago Public Schools. Apparently, one of their students showed up for court dressed inappropriately, as defined by the sitting judge, and the judge really got angry with the young man and his parents for not dressing more appropriately for court. The judge ended up firing off a letter to the school irate at how students are being allowed to dress, since that then sends the message that this is OK all of the time. I think the judge was a little presumptuous, but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have a point.
A second argument I’ll make deals with the reality of judgment in our society. We are constantly judged based on how we look, how we talk, how we write, etc. Is it fair? Maybe not. Is it reality? Absolutely. Certainly, prejudice and prejudgment is wrong, but I am not talking about the person who thinks women should be demure or people who thinks someone of color is stupid. I’m talking about the person who sees a prospective employee walk in for an interview, and not dressing appropriately, or unable to legibly fill out a form. My father would occasionally sift through job applications at the dinner table, and we would see him crumple some up as “illegible”, and weren’t looked at. Occasionally he would talk about the person who showed up dressed inappropriately for an interview, essentially ending the interview before it started. Is it fair? Perhaps not. Is it reality? Yes.
Students need to learn, and by learn I mean commit to habit, that there is a time and place for everything, and that sometimes, particular choices of clothing are inappropriate. To be blunt, a woman may be exceptionally qualified for a job, but showing up in a cleavage-baring halter top communicates that she may lack the maturity or seriousness for the job, just as the guy who shows up with his waistband at mid-thigh shows that he is more interested in his personal style than what might be required of the company.
This is nothing new. When I student taught over 20 years ago (sigh), one of my fellow student teachers was sent home one day when she showed up wearing a sweater which was loose knit enough to show her peach bra. She was embarrassed, mostly because she never saw the problem … she had dressed like this for several years, but no one had said “not the best choice”.
This goes beyond simple clothing. My brother has (or should) have a customer-of-the-year plaque up at several tattoo parlors in the area. In choosing to do this, he has more-or-less disqualified himself from several avenues of employment. It may not be a fair judgment, but companies may not want someone who chooses to look like that representing them. It is one thing for an adult to make that choice, but something far more for someone who is 15 or 16 to make that choice that could affect their job prospects over the next ten years.
To wrap this up. I am not gong to be an apologist for those schools who send young ladies home because their clothing was “distracting”. That’s not the right reason to be sending kids home and away from learning. Rather, I think they need to change their line of thinking, as do some of our kids and parents. We all have a freedom of self-expression that is embodied constitutionally, and while that reasonably protects us from government interference, schools are a unique interaction with government for most citizens. While we would not expect the government to put mass dress codes on all of us, there are reasonable societal norms which exist, and not adhering to them can be costly, especially to those students who may not have parents willing to sit them down and explain these realities to them (because the parents may not know them). There may be some extremes of dress that are provocative to the point of distracting (to go to an extreme, I wonder if several of the anti-dress code advocates would have a problem with male students showing up in a thong Speedo, ala Will Ferrell). However, I think as long as the dress code is kept reasonable, and is enforced, not in the name of defending virginity or shaming students, and of course as long as it is fair between genders, then it should be enforced, even if that means occasionally removing a student after sufficient warnings have been given, and proper explanations have been made.