Dress code should not limit access to learning

Bare midriff. Bare back. Clothing that is too tight or too loose. Short shorts and provocative necklines. Clothing that disrupts learning is not appropriate. Student will be asked to change his or her clothes.

Above are some of the examples of clothing that disrupt learning according to the student handbook appearance and dress policy. But how does one define such types of clothing?

Dress code is often viewed by students as a way to restrict freedom of expression through dress; however, this expression isn’t always a guarantee in public schools.

The Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent School District case was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1969. According to Education.findlaw.com, the case involved high school students wearing black armbands in order to protest against the Vietnam War. The Supreme Court ruled that schools may limit expression only if there is a real concern “that such expression will be disruptive to the learning environment or violate the rights of others.” States now reference this case when implementing the right for school districts to have dress codes to ensure learning isn’t disrupted.

This can lead to variations between what schools classify as distractions. Principal Scott Roberts said dress is not guaranteed as a mean of expression if it is considered to disrupt learning.

“As long as [what a student wears] doesn’t have something that is offensive or obscene, not against the law, not revealing, we don’t get involved in dress,” Roberts said. “You can wear what you want to wear, but it’s not really about your expression; it’s just what you choose to wear.”

Due to the Tinker ruling, states have laws that allow school districts to make school-specific dress codes for students. According to Kansaslegalservices.org, schools in Kansas can “justify dress codes as a method to control discipline and avoid distraction.”  

“There are times when someone’s dress can be a distraction to other people,” Roberts said. “And if what someone is wearing, or frankly not wearing, is a distraction to other students, then it’s going to affect their learning.”

The real problem with the dress code is clearly defining what is considered a distraction. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word distract as “to take (attention) away from someone or something.” With such a vague word, it is left open to interpretation — the interpretation of the people implementing the policy. Most of the clothing that is listed under the “disrupts learning” section of the dress code does not actually do so. Seeing an inch of someone’s midriff, someone’s bra strap or bralette, or a section of someone’s back is in no manner going to distract another from learning.

Senior Karie Wu said she was told to put on a shirt provided by the school after she was approached for a violation in the dress code on Sept. 13. She said the shirt in question was then taken from her and she was told she could get it back at the end of the school day. Wu’s shirt contained multiple slits in the back of it. She said she had on a bralette underneath the shirt and was told that even though it covered more, it was considered the same as only wearing a bra underneath.

Assistant principal and activities director Erica Warren said bralettes, even though they are not technically bras, are still considered an undergarment, so they are against the dress code. She also said when administrators ask students to change shirts, they keep his or her shirt until the end of the day to guarantee he or she “remains in accordance with the dress code.”

Current fashion styles are often considered more revealing than styles of 10 or 20 years ago, or it could just be that different clothing is considered more socially acceptable in this day and age. Regardless, most students don’t wear clothing to school that blocks learning or brings forth distractions to other students or teachers. Bralettes are an example of a fashion trend that could be seen as revealing by the standards of the dress code, but inhibit no disruption to the learning environment.

“I don’t think [my clothing choice] gets in the way of learning,” Wu said. “The people who aren’t paying attention in class aren’t going to not pay attention because of me. My back isn’t going to tear attention away from the subject. Plus, most of the time I’m sitting, leaning my back on the chair or have a backpack on.”

Something as acute as a bralette or someone’s back showing doesn’t divert attention away from the main focus of the school day: to learn. Additionally, since much of classroom time is spent in a chair, there truly is no threat if the so-called distraction isn’t even visible.

In an attempt to keep what the school considers distractions at bay, the dress code states that it is against the policy to wear anything that advertises illegal activities or anything that students cannot legally purchase. The dress code also includes examples of clothing that it states will impede learning. Some of the items in this section include: provocative necklines, bare backs, bra straps or provocative clothing of any kind. While it is essential to recognize the impact a dress code has on a student body, it is nearly impossible to determine what may actually be disrupting learning. Most of what the dress code classifies as distracting is not at all prohibiting students’ learning.  

Roberts said for him, a distraction is more or less when someone may focus on someone’s clothes instead of the lesson at hand.   

“There are times — I’ll use a female student — if a female student is provocatively dressed, either a low slung blouse, [or if her] shorts are too short, that can be a distraction sometimes for many people,” Roberts said. “Certainly if someone is wearing something that has marijuana or pot leaf or beer or something people are going to chuckle and say ‘look at that,’ and they’re not going to be thinking about what they should be thinking about — which is class — they’re going to be thinking about what someone is wearing.”  

Prohibiting having illegal activity or profanity displayed on someone’s outfit is an important part of the dress code because something that is illegal at school shouldn’t be worn on a shirt to school. However, when the dress code mentions things like provocative necklines, bare backs and bra straps, one can question how much this actually disrupts a classroom setting. Afterall, it is no secret that everyone has backs and most girls wear bras, so it shouldn’t be considered a disruption to learning when one of these shows from time to time.

Roberts said enforcement of such issues varies from case to case. He also said that in the case of provocative necklines, he thinks students are typically able to judge for themselves what that means because there is no set definition besides a shirt that is too low-cut or too revealing. Roberts also said usually backs are only an issue when a student’s entire back is revealed.

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(photo illustration by: Donna Armstrong)

However, students still get told their shirt might be inappropriate when there is a relatively small slit or hole in the back of the shirt. For example, sophomore Skylar Jacobson said she was asked to put on something to cover up her shirt on the first day of school after being approached by an administrator. She said she was told her shirt was in violation of the dress code because of the slit in the back of it.

“I don’t think that clothes showing backs and bra straps are actually distracting to any person because there is nothing inappropriate about a back or any way someone can’t learn since they’re distracted because of a back showing,” Jacobson said. “Also, bra straps are not distracting to anyone and causing them not to be able to learn because both genders know that females wear bras.”

Roberts said the issue of bra straps is not one that is as heavily enforced in the school anymore. He said that since it is now a style to have bra or bralette straps showing, it is enforced less frequently.

While bra straps are not as heavily as enforced, Roberts said in cases where the dress code is imposed — two to three times a week, depending on the season — an administrator will tell a student that they don’t think what the student is wearing meets the dress code. They then will either tell the student to not wear the attire again or they might ask them if they have any other clothing to put on to further cover up. In extreme cases, a student may be asked to have his or her parent bring different clothing, to go home to change into more appropriate attire or be given clothing from the school to wear for the remainder of the day. Roberts said the staff tries to deal with dress code violations with as much dignity as possible and tries to work with each individual.

“We try to use common sense… and be able to work with the student,” Roberts said. “We understand that [dress code] is important, but it’s also not more important than learning.”

Dress code is something that continues to be addressed because of what the school deems appropriate. The most important thing is that learning always come first.

English teacher Marin McCrossen said the dress code should reflect a “ready to learn” mindset. She also said she recognizes the importance that dress code holds to teach students about future endeavors.

“Learning about audience and purpose specific to situations is an important soft skill,” McCrossen said. “Each of us has to be able to determine appropriateness of dress, language and demeanor based on situational awareness. There are things that one can wear that are perfectly acceptable by societal standards, perhaps, but are not appropriate to the purpose and audience found in schools. It isn’t really about the hat or the T-shirt, or the lacy bra straps, or the sagging jeans; it’s really about the recognition
of an important soft skill that is necessary in the real world.”

Counselor Tom Hult said students often try to mend their school dress to the current styles and trends, but that sometimes these trends are too revealing for school.

“When it is too distracting, the school has an obligation to all students to do what is in the best interest of learning for students,” Hult said. “There are plenty of options for students to express themselves while staying within the limits of the dress code.”

Wu said she thinks many students are able to express their styles within the limits of the dress code; however, she doesn’t find herself, among various others, being able to do this. With some of the more repressive aspects of the dress code, it becomes difficult for certain students to find they still are given the right of expression.

“The dress code restricts my sense of creativity because for me, my clothes are a part of who I am,” Wu said.

While the dress code holds importance in a school setting, sending a student home is not justified. Students come to school to learn, and that shouldn’t be taken away from them because they are told to change outfits. The importance of the dress code lies within its deeper meaning: to teach students that different situations and cultures have different appropriate dress types. However, in the school
setting — where dress is supposed to be a guaranteed expression unless it is a distraction or violates others’ rights — it isn’t a distraction or an impediment to learning to have something as miniscule as part of someone’s back showing. Even though it is important to set standards for students, a back does not distract anyone and should certainly never take away from the opportunity to learn.

“In most cases, I don’t think it’s okay to send someone home for the way he or she is dressed,” Jacobson said. “I don’t think anyone is truly that distracted in class to where they can’t learn because of the way someone else is dressed. So, sending that person home and actually taking away from their learning to change clothes that weren’t too bad doesn’t seem like a logical solution.”

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(photo illustration by: Donna Armstong)

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