It’s T-shirts and shorts weather, and with students still in school for another five weeks, that can only mean one thing: middle and high school principals are reminding students (and parents) about school dress codes.
There is nothing inherently wrong with asking students to adhere to an established dress code, but they cannot single out one group for punishment. At Malden Mystic Valley Regional Charter School, black students have been punished for wearing braids. After Attorney General Maura Healey sent a letter to the school last week saying that the policy was unlawful because it targeted students of color and Black students in particular, its Board of Trustees unanimously voted on Sunday to rescind the policy. Nor can dress codes violate a student’s right to free speech, which has resulted in a decision by the Easthampton schools superintendent, made in consultation with the ACLU, to permit a student to continue wearing a shirt with the Confederate flag on it.
More typically, however, dress codes take aim at clothing worn by girls. These dress codes are rooted in the hard-to-die concept of boys and men being unable to control themselves around women and girls. Not only is this incredibly insulting to boys and men, but it also perpetuates a blame-the-victim mentality. There is a straight line from “your short shorts are a distraction at school” to “your short skirt caused your rape.”
Last month, a Maine sixth grader was dressed down in front of her classmates by a teacher for violating the school dress code. Her crime? Wearing what the Portland-Press Herald describes as “a racerback-style purple tank top.” The student, Molly Neuner, came to school the following day in another tank top with “#iamnotadistraction” written in marker on the inside of her forearm.
Neuner didn’t pick her temporarily tattooed message by accident. If you search “#iamnotadistraction” on Twitter you’ll find tweets from parents and students showing examples of unfair treatment of girls through subjectively enforced dress code policies. The campaign was launched in 2014 by a group of middle school girls in Maplewood-South Orange, N.J., fed up with dress code policies that only applied to girls. Meanwhile, Neuner’s protest has since been covered by Teen Vogue, Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan, and multiple TV outlets across the country.
The #iamnotadistraction movement is a refreshing grassroots response to middle and high school dress codes that are ostensibly in place to minimize disruption to the teaching and learning environment but are frequently used to specifically police the appearance of girls instead. Neuner, who told the Herald that she believes her school’s dress code policy is “sexist, applied unfairly to girls, and silly given how common tank tops are among adults and children,” is right: girls are far more likely than boys to get—as the kids call it—“dress-coded.”
This is a clear area for action on the part of schools: they should claim a leadership role in creating a culture of zero tolerance for sexual violence in all of the ways it can manifest, from shaming to physical assault. School dress codes should in no way tie inappropriate male behavior to anything but the need to develop more human respect in the environment and more skills to manage distractions of all sorts. The messages for all genders should be to reinforce the humanity and expectation of respect for each person in their school community.
School administrators can cultivate a school’s learning environment—and determine whether or not a dress code would be helpful—by engaging the entire school community, including students, in a discussion. This is something Neuner’s school principal seems to now understand. In response to Neuner’s protest, her principal has created a committee to review the dress code policy, and Neuner is on it.
Going forward, schools should understand that an effective dress code policy explicitly includes girls, boys, LGBTQ students, those who are gender fluid, and students of all races and ethnicities. It will name anything that should be included or excluded. For example, effective dress codes give clear guidance such as, “everyone at the school who wears shorts must ensure that the bottom of the shorts touch their knees” or “all shirts must be dark blue and have sleeves that go halfway to the elbow.” They avoid language that requires a subjective assessment, such as “avoid clothing that is too tight.” They spell out what cannot be worn, such as clothing with language that is racist, sexist, or anti-LGBTQ, or advertises alcohol or tobacco products. There is nothing inherently wrong with dress codes in schools. They can provide important guidance for the norms students should know about as respectful members of the school community. Too often, however, they are informed by myths and stereotypes that harm teenagers of all genders.
Gina Scaramella, LICSW, is the executive director of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center.