Calif. city latest to give ‘sexist’ school dress codes a makeover
ALAMEDA, Calif. — The relaxed new dress code at public schools in the city of Alameda, across the bay from San Francisco, is intentionally specific: Midriff-baring shirts are acceptable attire, so are tank tops with spaghetti straps and other once-banned items such as micro-mini skirts and short shorts.
As students settle into the new term, gone are restrictions on ripped jeans and hoodies. If students want to come to school in pajamas, that’s OK, too.
The new policy amounts to a sweeping reversal of the modern school dress code and makes Alameda the latest school district in the country to adopt a more permissive policy it says is less sexist.
Students who initiated the change say many of the old rules that barred too much skin disproportionately targeted girls, while language calling such attire “distracting” sent the wrong message.
“If someone is wearing a short shirt and you can see her stomach, it’s not her fault that she’s distracting other people,” said Henry Mills, 14, an incoming freshman at Alameda High School who worked with a committee of middle school students and teacher advisers to revise the policy. “There was language that mainly affected girls, and that wasn’t OK.”
Dress codes have long been the territory of contention and rebellion, but the reversal in Alameda shows a generational shift that students and teachers say was partly influenced by broader conversations on gender stemming from the #MeToo movement against sexual misconduct and a national resurgence of student activism.
Approved by the school board on a trial basis over summer break, the new dress code is stirring backto-school discussions about what role schools should have in socializing children.
There are critical voices of the new dress code.
Math teacher Marie Hsu said she’s all for equity but that the new rules send an unintentional message that it’s fine, even appropriate, to “sex it up.”
“It’s good not to punish girls for being distractions. I fully, fully get that,” said Hsu, who teaches at Lincoln Middle School and is an Alameda resident with two young children. “But I think it’s extraordinarily misled.”
Alameda mother Paula Walker says she may be “old school,” but she didn’t mind the bans against revealing clothing.
“They say kids are starting everything younger, and I’m like, well, that’s because you’re throwing it in their faces,” Walker said.
Dress codes and their severity vary widely nationwide. Twenty-four states have policies that give local school districts the power to adopt their own dress codes or uniform policies, according to the Education Commission of the States, a nonprofit that tracks education policy.
Some have statewide policies, like Arkansas, which passed a 2011 law requiring school districts “to prohibit the wearing of clothing that exposes underwear, buttocks, or the breast of a female.”
Alameda’s new dress code was modeled after a suggested policy by the Oregon chapter of the National Organization for Women, drafted in 2016 to “update and improve” dress codes, avoid rules that reinforce gender stereotypes and minimize unnecessary discipline or “body shaming.”
Portland, Ore.’s public school district adopted a new policy in 2016, followed by Evanston, Ill., in 2017, both of which incorporated NOW’s suggestions.
Students in Alameda, Portland and Evanston have freedom to wear anything as long as it includes a bottom, top, shoes, covers private parts and does not contain violent images, hate speech, profanity or pornography.
Schools have changed their dress codes after complaints the rules unfairly targeted girls.