Is It Important to Enforce the Dress Code as a Teacher?


With all the talk of unbalanced dress code practices, including those that unfairly penalize female students, the question begs: Should you enforce your school's dress code, and if so, how can you do it fairly?

Dress Codes

Dress codes have been around a long time, but with changing fashions and personal sensitivities, the enforcement of these codes has become more difficult for teachers and school administrators. With parents and students decrying the unfairness of modern dress codes, should schools even bother, and if so, how can they apply them so that the codes are fair to everyone?

Necessity of Dress Codes

In today's market, clothing, especially garments marketed toward girls, is not always appropriate for the classroom. A brief walk through almost any department store is all it takes to find short-shorts, mini-skirts, skimpy halters, low-slung jeans, and t-shirts with objectionable slogans or graphics - all in the children's department. While clothing like this might be appropriate for a playdate with friends, administrators find that it's a distraction in the classroom. And since administrators believe that students and their parents can't always be counted on to make wise decisions when it comes to dressing for class, they also believe dress codes are needed.

But many students disagree, which can lead to contentious confrontations with school officials. Let's explore some of the arguments.

Arguments Against Dress Codes

Performing a quick online search of the keywords ''dress code'' will yield dozens of examples of students protesting what they see as unfair practices that stigmatize female students for code violations. Students argue that current rules unfairly target girls, forcing them to cover up or face serious punishment. According to an Allure magazine interview with Summer, a Hickory Ridge, NC, high school senior, she was suspended, banned from her own graduation, and faced the possibility of arrest and expulsion because of a minor dress code violation. Even though she complied when asked to cover her shoulders, she questioned the school's policy, leading administrators to accuse her of insubordination.


Main Arguments

Main arguments against current school dress policies include their tendency to be heavy-handed and lopsided. Girls are often required to wear long shorts or skirts and ensure that their shoulders, backs, and chests are well covered. However, boys face no similar limitations on their attire; most often, they're simply required to pull their pants up over their underwear. This means that during warm summer months, male students are free to wear athletic shorts and tank tops, but girls are not, and all because boys might be distracted by the sight of female flesh.

Critics say these types of policies not only unfairly stigmatize girls but also send the message that their bodies are bad and their education is not as important as their male peers. Whether or not this is true is a point of debate, but there are ways to enforce a school dress code fairly without stigmatizing half the student body in the process.

Enforcement Without Shame

If your school has a dress code, as a teacher, you're bound to enforce it, just like any other rules. However, there are ways to do that without turning the event into a traumatic one for any of your students.


Some suggestions from Victoria, Australia, schools include:

  • Communicate the code. By talking to students - preferably early in the year and at intervals thereafter - teachers can explain the dress code and its need for implementation.
  • Keep it simple. Rules, such as those set out by Portland Public Schools, should be simple and inclusive. There are no regulations that apply to one gender over another; everyone is expected to exercise the same restraint when it comes to their wardrobe.
  • Keep it fair. Students can control a great deal when dressing for the school day; their anatomy is not one of them. Punishing a boy for wearing shorts that are a little too short when he is over six feet tall, or a girl whose breasts are evident in her t-shirt because puberty has arrived, is unreasonable and discriminatory.
  • Keep it quiet. There is no reason that students need to be shamed in front of the class because they have dressed in a way the district deems inappropriate. By doing so, teachers are only reinforcing a culture that encourages bullying behavior.
  • Respect the process. Students will push back against authority - that's what they do. Exercising patience and understanding that conforming is as hard for them as it is for you will avoid a great deal of classroom drama.
  • Respect the student. Critics of student dress codes say it isn't unusual for girls to be shamed in front of the class and even sent home to change, causing them to miss important class time. This exclusion sends the wrong message that their education isn't important and can even open students up to ridicule from peers.


Addressing Violations

So, what can you do when a student violates the district's policy on proper dress, even if you don't agree with it?

  • Talk to the student individually. Take the student aside and voice your concerns respectfully.
  • Send a note home to the parents. Make sure the parent/guardian understands what is wrong with the attire, or why it is prohibited.
  • Discuss the issue with the distracted student. If students are caught staring at a midriff or bra strap in class, remind them that ogling their classmates is rude and they should focus on their studies.
  • Ignore it. Minor violations should not be a reason for interrupting class. If it isn't dangerous, let it go.

The discussion about school dress codes isn't likely to let up soon, but you can make the issue easier for your class. By reminding students that they will be judged - fairly or not - by how they present themselves and keeping the conversation respectful, you can remain in compliance and convey an important lesson at the same time.

By Patricia Willis
July 2017
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