Short shorts, baggy pants and spaghetti straps, oh my! School dress codes have been a hot topic since the 1960s, when girls wanted to start wearing pants and boys wanted to start wearing longer hair. Now that the weather is heating up and shorts are coming back out of the dressers, there will also be an increase in kids being sent to the office for dress code violation. Where do schools need to draw the line? Two inches above the knee?

Any school dress code will address the issue of the literal and representational messages delivered on clothing. AISD states clearly, “Clothing may not advertise, condone, depict or promote the use of alcohol, tobacco or drugs.” This seems pretty straightforward; there is nothing ambiguous about a marijuana leaf or Joe Camel. The dress code continues, “Also prohibited is clothing with vulgar or obscene language.” Vulgar and obscene tend to be straightforward determinations as well, although different families will define obscenity differently.

Things get trickier when looking at the second half of the guideline, which pertains to “writing that promotes disruption of the educational setting.” Where does a child’s right to express himself overtake another child’s right to feel safe and able to focus in her educational setting? What standards are used to determine which images promote disruption? A Confederate Flag t-shirt may cause some children to feel intimidated and distracted, while others feel it is a part of their heritage. Innuendo and double meanings can also make it difficult to determine what is appropriate.

Dress code violations disrupt a student’s education in more ways than one, when we consider the time teachers and administrators are taken away from the important task of educating our youth to deal with baggy pants, questionable graphics and skimpy shorts. Punishment for dress code violation in area schools may also end in suspension and removing the child from the educational setting.

Room for Interpretation

One issue that becomes very clear when trying to enforce an ambiguous dress code is that there is considerable room for interpretation. Are teachers and school staff able to remove their bias while judging if an outfit is appropriate for school? Shorts and a sleeveless top may be deemed appropriate for a girl who is immature in appearance but inappropriate for a girl who has womanly curves.

It is difficult to talk about dress codes without addressing the sexualization of girls. In the #YesAllWomen Twitter culture, women and girls speak out, saying, “Don’t tell us what to wear; teach the boys not to stare.” Are we sending the message to boys that they are incapable of learning if a pretty girl in a tank top is in view?

Peggy Orenstein, mother of a teenaged girl and contributing writer for the New York Times, writes, “Telling girls to ‘cover up’ just as puberty hits teaches them that their bodies are inappropriate, dangerous, violable, subject to constant scrutiny and judgment, including by the adults they trust. Nor does it help them understand the culture’s role in their wardrobe choices.”

While girls seem to get the brunt of dress code restrictions, it was not always this way. In the 1960s and 1970s, the flurry of attention was directed toward long-haired young men. Now, boys mainly find themselves in trouble with dress code if their pants are sagging or if they are wearing gang colors.

Another Way?

If only there were a way out of all of this wardrobe drama, at least during the school day. Two researchers from the University of Nevada, Jafeth Sanchez and George Hill, studied the opinions of middle-school students the year after a uniform policy was passed. While 90 percent of the students self-reported that they did not like having to wear a uniform, they also reported that the policy decreased disciplinary problems, gang involvement and bullying. The students reported increases in self-esteem, ease of going to school, safety and confidence. Research of discipline referrals and school police logs also showed a reduction in student fights, graffiti and property damage.

“If a simple change in attire can positively influence more than 30 percent, or even 25 percent of a school’s student population,” Sanchez says, “then perhaps administrators, teachers, students and community members find it worth the effort. Essentially, students reported positive impacts by simply changing the clothes they wore to school, and comparatively, there wasn’t much of a downside.”

Often, a district’s dress code is only a set of minimum standards. For example, many individual schools in AISD have adopted more specific and restrictive dress codes, including school uniforms. These policies are implemented after meetings in which stakeholders such as parents and teachers are invited to contribute and eventually vote.

At Oak Springs Elementary in east Austin, it is believed that a more specific dress code will positively impact attitude, behavior, academic performance, school spirit and campus unity. Students may wear solid color khaki or blue denim pants, shorts, dresses, skirts or jumpers along with grey, navy blue or white tops in solid colors. Clothing is to be without holes and “right sized” to prevent immodesty of clothing that is hanging (or sagging). Since the only logos or writing or pictures that are allowed are those of the school, there is no room for interpretation of what is or is not appropriate for the school environment. It takes the guesswork and potential bias out of the equation.

But then again, those uniform jumpers still need to be at most two inches above the knee.


Jennifer VanBuren of Georgetown is an educator and mother of three school aged children.

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