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Dress codes: Where should schools set limits?

By Martha Irvine

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, April 16 2014 9:23 p.m. MDT

Parents Kevin and Juliet Bond wrote an open letter to the district after their 13-year-old daughter Lilly sensed unfairness and asked them to address it.

"It's not like these girls are dressing up like street corner gals, right? I mean, it's sweatshirts and comfy pants," says Juliet Bond, an author and professor of women's studies at a Chicago liberal arts college.

Members of the advisory board say the dress code policy will be reviewed for the next school year. The key, school board member Suni Kartha said, would be to come up with a clear, consistent policy with as little "judgment" as possible.

"I don't think anybody ever had the intention for the policy to ever shame any of the students, but I understand that that's the effect," Kartha said.

There are those who argue that the best way to handle the dress code dilemma is to mandate uniforms, such as the blue pants and white shirts worn by Chicago Public Schools students.

"It puts everyone on the same playing field when they're at school," says Kitty Rotella, principal of St. Mark's Episcopal School, a private school for preschool through eighth grade in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. When her students have the occasional out-of-uniform day, she says, she feels like they're more distracted, even if there's no attire she deems inappropriate.

But others question the value of any strict codes.

"We were always pro dress code. Now I think, 'Is it really that important?'" says Jamie Renfro. She's the mother of a third-grader Kamryn Renfro, who recently gained national attention when she decided to shave her head to support her 11-year-old friend Delaney Clements, who has cancer and lost her hair after chemotherapy.

After she shaved her head, 9-year-old Kamryn was suspended from her public charter school in Grand Junction, Colo. — though the school's board quickly reversed the decision.

Now, because of her daughter's experience, Renfro says she catches herself paying attention at school events to dress code violations — earrings that might be too big, or a boy's hair that is longer than shoulder length.

"But does the length of the kids' hair doesn't necessarily affect them in the classroom?" she asks. "I really doubt it does."

Haley Bocanegra, a 17-year-old junior from Riverside, Ill., regularly pushes the limits even further at her school, sometimes dressing like a boy, or wearing wigs and goggles for a "Steampunk" outfit, or a Japanese anime costume.

She says teachers usually have a harder time with it than her classmates do.

"I'm paying attention in class. So why are you making a big deal about it?" the honors student asks, showing them the student handbook to prove she's not violating the code.

At least one former teacher who's now an expert in education law advises schools to continue to focus instead on safety — and to ignore students' unusual dress, if it's not disruptive or disrespectful in some way.

Beyond that, Nancy Hablutzel, a professor of education at the Chicago-Kent College of Law, says consistency is important.

"But," she says, "so is common sense."

Martha Irvine can be reached at mirvine@ap.org or at http://twitter.com/irvineap

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