A Dress Code We Can All Live With

by Mel Riddile

As Spring finally arrives, school dress codes are once again front page news. Last year it was “yoga pants.” This year, the controversy revolves around a middle school principal for restricting the wearing of leggings — “popular fashion items that are tight-fitting pants to some, and glorified tights to others”.

No one is immune from the criticisms leveled by the so-called fashion police. Even First Lady, Michelle Obama, has been chastised by the likes of the Washington Post fashion writers, who reminded readers that “none of them (previous first ladies) revealed as much leg as the current first lady.” And that “avoiding the appearance of queenly behavior is politically wise. But it does American culture no favors if a first lady tries so hard to be average that she winds up looking common.”

Some ask “Where Should Schools Set Limits?” In fact, that is the question that many principals are asking. School principals are not fashion experts. They are educators. However, many principals will be forced to become experts on fashion and to enforce student dress code policies, many of which are unenforceable.

Believe me, as a high school principal, the last thing that I wanted to do was worry about dress code policies. The reality of life is that some students will push the envelope and dress so provocatively or inappropriately, often without parent knowledge or approval, that they distract their peers to the point that they disrupt the educational process.

I can remember a prominent legislator confronting me because I had the audacity to send his daughter home to change from her pajamas and slippers into appropriate school attire. I reminded him that, not only did I not discipline his daughter, but that I had personally warned his daughter and her friends not to wear pajamas to school for an upcoming school event.

There are those who argue that the best way to handle the dress code dilemma is to mandate uniforms, such as the blue pants and white shirts worn by Chicago Public Schools students.

Some school systems make a difficult and unpleasant task doable by having policies that are specific enough to be enforceable. In Fairfax County Public Schools (Virginia) student services representatives annually meet with principals and ask for feedback on the current policy. The policy is kept up-to-date, and principals have specific, identifiable behaviors to enforce. The Fairfax County policy is clear and reasonable.

“FCPS respects students’ right to express themselves in the way they dress.  It is important,
however, that their appearance is tasteful and appropriate for a K
12 school setting. 

Clothing and accessories should not:

  Display vulgar, discriminatory, or obscene

language or images

  Promote illegal or violent conduct

  Contain threats or gang symbols

  Promote the unlawful use of weapons,

alcohol, tobacco, drugs, or drug


  Expose cleavage, private parts, the midriff,

or undergarments, and in the case of pants

the waistband should not fall below the


  Contain studs

  Be seethrough or sexually provocative

  Include caps or other head coverings unless

required for religious or medical reasons.”

Other school systems take the easy way out and leave the dress code issue totally up to the principal’s judgment. Instead of taking a position, they put the principal on the chopping block. For example, one school system’s policy stated,

“A student’s dress and appearance shall not cause disruption, distract others from the educational process or create a health or safety problem. Students must comply with specific building dress regulations of which students will be given prior notice.”

Upon reading this, I concluded that the local school board was taking the easy way out by passing the buck to the school principal. In addiont, given some of the current attitudes about dress, a student would literally have to run through the hallways naked to cause the kind of disruption that would warrant action by the principal under this policy. Perhaps I am overstating the issue, but there is simply too much subjectivity in the application of this policy to ensure consistent and fair enforcement. In other words, the policy is unenforceable.

That wouldn’t stop a school board member from calling me to complain that my alleged students, who were walking down the street in the middle of the day, were dressed inappropriately. Nor would it stop another official from calling to complain that a constituent objected to the principal’s interpretation of the dress code. Caught in the middle again!

It is the responsibility of the building principal to create a context or culture in which teaching and learning can best take place. A safe, orderly, and organized school environment is minimum expectation. It is essential that the learning environment be free of distractions and disruptions to the learning process and that everyone has a consistent, clear set of expectations regarding appropriate decorum so that teachers can move beyond behavior to a focus on learning.

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