Middle Schoolers Advocate Change–A Dress Code Renewal


As we approach the end of another academic year, over 100 students have united at Christopher Columbus Middle School (CCMS) and have decided to tackle an issue that has been simmering under the surface for quite some time—the school's dress code. The students wrote a letter to the school administration expressing their disapproval of the Clifton Public Schools' Dress Code following an incident in which dozens of students - mostly girls, according to one student - were sent to the auditorium for "inappropriate" attire. This collective is determined to challenge the existing dress code and demand a policy reform that better aligns with the present-day needs and realities of the student body.

Last Thursday, when temperatures reached an unseasonably high 90 degrees, students showed up to classes at CCMS dressed for the weather in shorts and tank tops. Many of them were sent out of class and needed to call parents to bring them different clothes that better fit with the school district's dress code policy. Among other things, the policy states that shorts may be "no shorter than two inches above the knee," a requirement that is difficult to fulfill in today's girls' fashion. One sixth grader, the daughter of former Board of Education Commissioner Joe Canova, decided to challenge what she saw as unreasonable restrictions and she joined with a group of other middle schoolers to draft a letter to administration. She also went to school the next day in a tee shirt and a pair of shorts which were shorter than the dress code requires but were not cut-offs nor showing anything more than her legs. She was dress coded and sent out of class, where she ended up missing almost two hours of class time before Canova could bring her a change of clothes.

These students argue that the dress code needs to be updated and address the contemporary realities of the student body. One student said, "I wish I could say 'new' dress code, but I cannot. Our current dress code was made in 2016. In 2016, not even CCMS's current 8th graders were in middle school." This statement emphasizes the urgency of updating the dress code to reflect evolving fashion trends, cultural diversity, and changing societal norms. While acknowledging the necessity of certain dress code rules like prohibitions on crop tops and visible undergarments, the students question the rationale behind other restrictions they find excessive. For instance, they question the requirement for pants not to cover shoes and, according to the official dress code, "all non-collared shirts must be completely tucked into the waistband."

However, at the heart of the argument is the uneven burden placed on female students by the dress code. They argue that the regulations disproportionately limit the fashion choices of girls, inhibiting their ability to express their unique styles and individuality. Considering the prevailing fashion trends, the code's limitations on summer tops, usually thin-strapped, are unreasonably restrictive, especially when considering that most retail stores only sell summer tops designed in that manner.

In addition to these concerns, the students argue that the existing dress code fails to demonstrate tolerance towards the religious practices of a diverse student body. For instance, Muslim students, as required by their religion, cannot reveal the shapes of their bodies and, therefore, wear baggy clothing to cover themselves. According to Clifton's dress code, students must not wear "oversized baggy pants"; however, that is the only convenient way Muslims, especially young girls, can dress in a way that aligns with their religious values while attending school.

Furthermore, Muslims are required to perform their five daily obligatory prayers. Some request to pray in the school offices; to do so, they must be covered without the shape of their bodies showing. One student wrote, "This shows how being unable to wear baggy clothes affects Muslims and our privacy. It prevents Muslims from exercising their Islamic faith."

The students also take issue with the disparity in the dress code's length of shorts for boys and girls. The dress code's rigid standards often make it challenging for girls to find shorts that comply with the long-length requirements, especially during warmer weather. The students advocate for a dress code that is more accommodating and mindful of all students' diverse experiences and fashion choices, regardless of gender.

The students' initiative to challenge the current dress code speaks to their commitment to creating an empowering school environment. They are not merely advocating for fairness, gender equality, and individuality; they are demanding an environment that respects their freedom of expression, a right protected under the landmark Supreme Court case, Tinker v. Des Moines. This case, often quoted in student rights discussions, affirmed that students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."

The students' concerns, their commitment to change, and their vision for a more inclusive dress code that respects their freedom of expression echo the sentiments of the case of Tinker v. Des Moines. Just as Mary Beth Tinker, the individual advocating for free speech during the case, and her peers stood up for their right to free speech in 1969, these students are voicing their concerns and advocating for change in their school community.

Their letter to the school administration presents a compelling case for a more progressive and inclusive dress code. They suggest allowing baggy clothes to accommodate diverse cultural and religious practices and easing the stringent lengths of shorts requirements for greater comfort and freedom. They also propose eliminating any punitive measures associated with dress code violations. They believe these changes will foster a more inclusive and supportive environment that values their self-expression, celebrates their diverse identities, and empowers them to thrive academically and personally.

Dr. Danny Robertozzi, superintendent of schools, responded, "Some concerns about our dress code policy did come to my attention recently. Since then, the Board of Education policy committee has decided to review the policy. In fact, the committee met today and included several students in order to get their input.

The policy committee has decided to continue this review, meet with more students, administrators, parents, and teachers, before making any recommendations for changes to the full Board of Education. The policy committee will also be reviewing disciplinary data related to our policy, although a cursory review has found that the infractions have been split almost evenly between males and females.

We are committed to ensuring that our policy is fair, reasonable, and in the best interest of our students. We want our policy to reflect our community’s values and support the success of our students."

The students' activism is a testament to their dedication to making their school a better place for everyone. In addition, it illustrates how they, as young Cliftonites, are not afraid to voice their concerns and advocate for change. Addressing issues such as the district dress code is initiating change for themselves and future generations of Clifton students.

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