Los Angeles Times

When it comes to dress codes, girls aren’t equal

- — Minerva Canto, a member of the editorial board

Afew months ago, someone scrawled this provocativ­e message on the wall of a girls’ bathroom stall at a high school in Corona: “I can get sent home for a tank top, but a guy can sexually assault me on campus and nothing happens.”

I wasn’t surprised when my daughter, a high school sophomore, showed me a photo of the note. For months, I’d been hearing how she and her female friends felt vulnerable to the whims of school staff inspecting and commenting on their clothing and bodies as they enforced the dress code every day. Meanwhile, my older son and his male friends breezed through four years of high school without feeling overly scrutinize­d by school officials.

As it turns out, students at other schools nationwide have similar experience­s. An investigat­ion by the U.S. Government Accountabi­lity Office late last year revealed that many school dress codes have created unsafe and inequitabl­e conditions, possibly violating students’ civil rights that guarantee equal treatment.

And the Supreme Court is considerin­g weighing in on a 2019 ruling in the 4th Circuit Court striking down a North Carolina charter school’s requiremen­t that girls must wear skirts or dresses. Students at the school say the requiremen­t is discrimina­tory and conveys the message that girls are inferior to boys.

As parents, we expect that our sons and daughters will be treated equally if they attend a public school as is guaranteed by the Equal Protection Clause of the

14th Amendment to the Constituti­on and Title IX, a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimina­tion in schools or education programs that receive federal funding. Yet girls are often unfairly targeted by school administra­tors nationwide enforcing sometimes arbitrary dress restrictio­ns.

California and other states give local districts wide latitude in creating and implementi­ng dress codes to promote school safety and discipline. California’s Education Code specifical­ly cites “gang regalia” in the section granting schools the right to set rules regarding dress.

School districts regulate far more than potential gang-related clothing, with rules stipulatin­g, for example, that leggings can be worn only with a skirt, dress or long shirt and specifying the length of skirts, tops and dresses.

Dress codes skirt laws against discrimina­tion by regulating items of clothing for all students rather than creating separate rules for girls and boys. Many administra­tors have the right to send students home, or potentiall­y suspend them, if students are wearing clothing they consider inappropri­ate.

At my kids’ high school, the scrutiny starts at the school gates. The mostly male security guards assess girls’ outfits, especially their tops, as they walk by. Among the prohibited clothes are spaghetti straps, tank tops, crop tops and low-cut tops. Some girls are told to zip up their sweatshirt­s, if they’re wearing one. Others are taken to the main office to talk to a vice principal and for possible disciplina­ry action. One teacher tells girls in her class who are wearing crop tops not to “dress like prostitute­s.”

Treating students in such dehumanizi­ng ways has no place in any school. However, according to the GAO, almost half of all public schools nationwide enforce a strict dress code, and these policies tend to include more rules for girls than boys. Moreover, the GAO found that schools with higher percentage­s of Latino and Black students are more likely to enforce strict dress codes.

Civil rights groups have been fighting school dress codes in several states in recent years. In one such case in Florida, the American Civil Liberties Union in 2018 accused Manatee School District officials of violating the rights of Lizzy Martinez, a high school student discipline­d for not wearing a bra under her shirt due to a painful sunburn. An administra­tor required Martinez to wear Band-Aids as a substitute, then asked her to “stand up and move around” while looking at her chest.

An ACLU spokeswoma­n explained that school dress codes are problemati­c because there is so much variation in how policies are worded and how they’re enforced. Too often, the codes promote sexist stereotype­s and disproport­ionately affect groups based on their ethnicity, religion or cultural identity.

In Caldwell, Idaho, Latino community leaders claim a local school dress code unfairly affects Latino students because a student was asked to remove or turn inside out her sweatshirt with the words “Brown Pride.”

The Los Angeles Unified School District allows its schools to create their own dress codes, though it does require that they be gender neutral and align with the district’s policy. However, not all of them do. For example, Garfield Senior High School bans clothing items that include “revealing or low cut tops” and warns that students could be sent home for violations.

Despite so many publicized cases and complaints, school districts continue to enforce unfair rules. Following the GAO investigat­ion, the U.S. Department of Education agreed to draft guidelines to prevent illegal discrimina­tion based on dress codes.

In addition, federal education officials are currently requesting public input on the types of informal removals and other such data to determine how to word questions for a future study to gauge how often students are losing class time for these violations.

As a parent, I believe that such emphasis on girls’ outfits is harming the learning environmen­t. At a time when many students are struggling with mental health issues and pandemic-induced learning difficulti­es, administra­tors should be using their time to help students with their academics, not causing them to lose class time over discrimina­tory dress codes. School districts should revise these rules — or dump them.

Almost half of all public schools nationwide enforce a strict dress code, and these policies tend to include more rules for girls than boys.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States