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Free the shoulders: When does dress code impede on the law?

Less than two weeks into school, junior Caralinda Muniz was sent home for wearing an off the shoulder shirt. Muniz is not the only student who has been reprimanded for violating Wilson’s dress code policy, laid out in the student agenda and on Wilson’s website. According to a survey by The Beacon, 25 percent of students reported they have been ‘dress coded’ during their time at Wilson. Six of the 329 students surveyed said they were sent home to change as of September 18, all of whom were females.

Wilson has always had a dress code, according to ninth grade dean Wallace Haith. The dress code policy was put in place by District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) and has been instituted at all DC public high schools that do not have uniforms. R.O.A.R (Respect, Ownership, Attendance, Responsibility) posters throughout the building remind Wilson students to practice respect by “dressing for success.”

Across the country, school dress codes have been criticized for unfairly targeting women or forcing students to conform to gender stereotypes. Wilson is no exception. “As far as I’ve been here, I’ve never seen a boy get dresscoded, so I think it’s more biased towards girls,” sophomore Bronson Bukowski said.

Muniz agrees, “I feel like [Wilson’s dress code] is mostly towards females. I think they should let us wear what we want.”

The question of whether or not shoulders are too revealing for a school setting is not the only one students, parents, and administrators have been asking. Possible underlying sexism within school dress policy has brought critic’s attention to Title IX, a federal law which prohibits sex based discrimination in any federally funded program.

In 2014, the United States Court of Appeals said that gender-based dress codes and grooming policies can qualify as gender discrimination under Title IX, and violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. While public school’s reserve the right to enforce dress codes, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), federal law states that dress codes can’t treat students differently based on sex, or force students to dress according to sex-based stereotypes.

Courts across the country have addressed dress code concerns in different ways. In 1969, the United States Supreme Court upheld the right of students to wear black armbands to school in protest of the Vietnam war in the Tinker v. Des Moines case, ruling that “Students don’t shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gates.”

A few years later, the 1972 Gardner v. Cumberland School Committee, ruled that schools may only regulate student dress when “it presents a clear and present danger to the student’s health and safety, causes an interference with school work, or creates a classroom or school disorder.” Since then, other court cases have debated students’ rights to wear shirts sporting vulgar expressions, wear their hair at whatever length they choose, and attend prom dressed in attire typical of the opposite sex.

Legally, Title IX requires that while dress codes can specify what is seen as appropriate attire, these requirements cannot differ on the basis of sex. For example, school’s cannot require only female students to wear bras, or prevent male students from wearing earrings.

Concerns for the legality of Wilson’s dress code policy were first raised this year after the 12th grade back-to-school assembly, where female students were advised to wear undergarments. Haith did not see cause for concern. He believes that under the policy, female students are not unfairly targeted or limited regarding what they can and cannot wear. “We would just ask that students come here in a professional manner,” he said.

Tiffany Mercer, Wilson’s 12th grade assistant principal who presented the slide, also saw no potential for legal conflict. Mercer explained that the goal of the reminder was to protect female students from unwanted advances. “We put that piece in there to protect the ladies. Not to discriminate them or to get them to be upset with us,” she said. “Look at the bigger picture. When you go to college, when you become a working adult, undergarments are necessary.”

The goal of the dress code, as seen by Haith, is to promote professionalism. “I think that asking young people to come to school and prepare for their professional careers and wear appropriate attire for a business like setting, is just asking them to be part of society, and being productive members of society,” Haith said.

Mercer explained that by, “dressing for success” students are respecting themselves and their peers. “Academic wise, it might not be a distraction to you, but if your attire is inappropriate, you’re actually a distraction to someone else.”

Frank LoMonte, the former Executive Director of the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) in Washington, DC reported on the role of Title IX and the First Amendment in dress codes. LoMonte noted in an email that it is not uncommon for school’s to justify setting differing standards for male and female dress codes, by pointing out that standards in the professional workplace differ as well. “I’m not sure how a legal challenge would come out,” LoMonte said.

Complaints about the dress code go beyond unequal guidelines for male and female students. The enforcement of Wilson’s dress code has been criticized for its inconsistency.

“I think they’re too biased with the dress code. They kind of target girls with certain body types, and I think it’s unfair that you personally feel attacked because you get dresscoded, but the girl walking down the hallway beside you doesn’t get dresscoded,” junior Sequoia Smallwood said.

Senior Naija Piper also said that certain body types are more often targeted, “If you’re short, they don’t really look at you, but if you’re tall, if you’re like 5’6 and above, they really look at you.”

Junior Chloe Turner expressed similar feelings, “They like to pick on certain people. Like if it looks good on you and it makes your body look better, than they’ll try and get you to change your outfit. But if you wear it and it doesn’t make your body look good, then they won’t really care.” Turner was recently told to put on a sweater while wearing a strapless sundress. “It’s really stupid…It wasn’t like I was showing any skin besides my shoulders, so it didn’t really make any sense,” she said.  

Targeting or unevenly enforcing dress policies against a particular group of students can violate laws prohibiting race and sex discrimination. Title 42, Chapter 21 of the U.S Code of Laws, for example, prohibits discrimination on the basis of age, disability, gender, race, national origin, and religion in a number of settings, including educational ones. Of the students who reported having been ‘dresscoded’ in The Beacon’s survey, 93 percent were female.

Perhaps the largest concern for students is the punishment for violating dress code. While some students have been handed a shirt upon entering the building or asked to put on a sweater, others, like Muniz, have been sent home for the day.

Page 37 of the student planner cites that dressing in a way that is “deemed by staff to be inappropriate” may result in being stopped at the door and given the option to change, a call to a parent to bring a change of clothes, or being given appropriate clothing to wear for the day. Further refusal to adhere to the policies may result in other sanctions, including but not limited to detention. The violation policy does not list sending students home for the day as a punishment.

“I would think that it would be our goal not to send anyone home for a dress code violation, because ultimately we want the students to come in and learn.,” Haith said. “I’ve been working with the disciplinary team for some years now and I haven’t noticed that or seen that,” Haith said of sending students home for violating dress code policies.

Wilson keeps data on how many students have been sent home for dress code violations, according to Mercer, but administration declined to share it with The Beacon. Neither Mercer nor Haith were sure whether or not being sent home would be marked as an excused absence. Paulette James, Wilson’s ninth and 12th grade attendance counselor, was also unsure, but said it would likely qualify as excused.

The punishment of sending students home, in most cases female students as The Beacon’s survey observed, once again raises the question of whether Title IX violations are at hand.

Some students seem to think so, “I think it takes time off school,” senior Jessica Padilla said.

Senior Diarra Wilson agrees, “Sending you home is just so extreme, because at that point then you’re taking away from my education.”


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