School dress codes can discriminate against many students, report finds
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Perspective by Joe Davidson
Students at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville wear uniforms to class. More than 80 percent of predominantly Black schools and almost two-thirds of predominantly Hispanic schools enforce strict dress codes, compared to just over two-thirds of White schools, a new GAO report found. (Susan Biddle/The Washington Post)
Student dress codes are promoted by educators for security reasons, but in many cases they are a source of insecurity, especially for Black pupils, girls and other learners.
That’s a key finding in a federal watchdog report that says the government should be more active in pushing equal access to education by helping school districts design clothing standards that better consider equity and safety for students. Almost half of the nation’s schools enforce strict dress codes, though they are more common for Black and Latino students.
“Many dress codes include elements that may make the school environment less equitable and safe for students,” says a recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). For example, GAO said, “an estimated 60 percent of dress codes have rules involving measuring students’ bodies and clothing — which may involve adults touching students.”
That can make girls feel less safe.
Hair also is a frequent target of dress codes that hit Black students more harshly than White ones. This is compounded by school disciplinary practices that are tougher on African Americans than White students for similar infractions. The result of unfair hair and clothing rules: “Black girls may be particularly vulnerable to harm from dress code enforcement,” the report said.
Consider the case of Ahriah Baynes, an Albany (N.Y.) High School athlete, who was told she and her predominantly Black teammates could not wear uncovered sports bras during a May track practice.
As my colleague Anne Branigin reported, the girls said a school official told them they were no longer allowed to practice while wearing sports bras without tops, because it was distracting to the male coaches. This blames girls for alleged behavior (or thoughts) by men. The coaches, Ahriah told the Federal Insider on Wednesday, “would never, ever, ever” act inappropriately toward the female athletes. Meanwhile, their male counterparts were allowed to practice shirtless, the 17-year-old senior said in a telephone interview.
This case demonstrates “how intersecting race and gender stereotypes can really come together to single out Black girls especially” for their appearance “and to shame them for their bodies and to treat them as sort of inherently inappropriate,” said Linda Morris, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which represented the girls along with the New York Civil Liberties Union.
More troubling than clothing restrictions, school rules on hair can essentially define Black people’s natural characteristics as inherently inferior to White people. Citing a 2017 Education Office for Civil Rights investigation, the GAO said the reasons a school prohibited Afro hair styles were simply “pretexts for discrimination.” The probe found a Peoria, Ariz. school allowed “long hair that grows down (the natural hair growth direction for most White people), but not long hair that grows out/up (the natural hair growth direction for most African American people).” The GAO also cited a school district that prohibited “hair with ‘excessive curls’ ” and another school system that blocked hair “no deeper than two inches when measured from the scalp” — regulations that more directly target Black students.
Other GAO examples of problematic dress code actions include:
• A Manatee County, Fla., high school girl who “was told to ‘move around’ for the school dean to determine if her nipples were visible through her shirt. The student was then instructed to put band aids on her chest.”
• A Pearland, Tex., school staffer who “drew on a Black boy’s head in permanent marker to cover shaved designs in his hair.”
• Victim shaming Huntington, W.Va., middle school girls who were “told they should not report inappropriate touching if they were not following the dress code.”
Some school districts seek to address equity issues by having students wear uniforms. But that can be difficult for low-income families “who may struggle to buy specific clothing items or afford certain hairstyles,” the GAO said. It found that almost three-fourths of predominantly Black schools require uniforms, as do just over half of predominantly Hispanic schools. That contrasts sharply with 2 percent of White schools.
The GAO does not condemn dress codes but does emphasize the need for equity and safety in their design and implementation. The punishment for violating dress codes can be suspension from school, which defeats learning and can lead to more serious issues.
More than 80 percent of predominantly Black schools and almost two-thirds of predominantly Hispanic schools enforce strict dress codes, compared to just over one-third of White schools, the GAO found. That fuels more suspensions, which can feed the school-to-prison pipeline. “Students who have been suspended are more likely to drop out of school and become involved in the juvenile justice system than their peers,” the GAO said, pointing to studies that “show Black and Hispanic students are more likely to receive harsher school discipline than their counterparts for the same violation.”
“Students are being denied educational opportunities because of what’s on their head … not in it,” said Michaele Turnage Young, senior counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “We certainly shouldn’t be denying students an equal opportunity to get an education because their hair is curly.”
Education Department officials agreed with the GAO recommendations that they should provide resources to help schools design and implement dress codes that protect students’ privacy and promote equitable discipline.
Ahriah’s experience with dress codes has strengthened her desire to confront inequities head-on by becoming a lawyer and then a politician. She wants to go where she thinks the fight will be the hardest, by moving from liberal New York state to conservative Texas, because that’s where the challenges are the greatest.
“If you know me,” she said, “you know I love a good fight.”
She’s already won one. The school suspensions against her and her teammates was removed from their records, according to Morris, and the dress code was changed to allow sports bras in practice.
By Joe Davidson
Columnist Joe Davidson covers federal government issues in the Federal Insider, formerly the Federal Diary. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with the Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns. Twitter
School uniforms might cut back on the emphasis for designer clothes and other factors, but I was ridiculed in school for wearing worn and secondhand clothes. If parents cannot afford new uniforms, the bullies will still bully and the kids will still be stressed over what they wear. The best thing that happened to me was when the dress code at my high school was dropped and as long as the skirts weren't too short or clothing was not revealing, we could wear anything. Before that, girls could not wear pants, boys' hair could not touch the top of their collars, and no one could wear open toed shoes.
After the code was relaxed, I was among those who wore faded jeans. So many students wore them that the "faded" was not only acceptable, but desired.
Wearing uniforms do nor appear to have many benefits:
What the fuck is it with white folk? That big hair shit you saw the white girls wearing years back was not a problem but the minute a person of color wants to let their hair in all it's glory shine . . oh we can't be havin' none of that.
I think a school uniform is fine, all the kids wear the same thing and if some girls want to wear a skirt of the same color as pants fine. I don't think a girl should be forced to wear a skirt. As to hair, I say leave the kids to wear it how ever they want. As long as it's mainly white people making the rules about hair they're making regulations on something they know nothing about. Deal with the inherent racism and it will go a long way to fixing things.
At my grandson's elementary schools ( probaly 50% mixed-race & co-ed, 2 over the 6 years) the dress code was dark blue pants (not jeans) and light blue top of some kind, (shirt/polo shirt/t-shirt under a sweater). Girls could wear a skirt if desired, also dark blue. Gym wear was provided.
Nobody talked about hair.
The local Walmart would stock up on these items in summer, for back-to-school sales.
What is being described in this article is pure & simple racial profiling and/or sexual harrassment IMO!
I used to feel differently but I support school uniforms. The kids, regardless of race, might not like the idea of it but cuts down on the bullshit.
School uniforms releave kids from the burden of trying to dress the cutest flashiest, sexiest and allow them to concentrate on what school is really for. They have all weekend to be individuals.
Same. In Thailand the whole country has the same uniform, which is a great idea eg stops school rivalry and keeps costs down.
I know it's an indoctrination tactic eg remove individuality to become part of a group eg dress all the same, but indoctrination does have its uses.
We are individuals but we are also social animals. We form groups, societies. To live in a functioning society we have to forgo individuality to a point and conform. The most obvious one is "Don't kill other people". Without that rule, societies would collapse fairly quickly.
Schools teach social skills, including how to function in society. All for individuality, but student should wear uniforms as part of the process of learning how to function by conforming in society.