Focus Group Agrees - Dress Code Focuses on Wrong Things
In mid-May a group of students from Christopher Columbus Middle School sent a letter to Administration, challenging the district’s dress code policy and asking for reforms. In the letter, these young activists pointed out that the last update to the policy had been in 2016 and they proposed changes for a more progressive and inclusive dress code. They suggested, for example, allowing the currently prohibited baggy clothes to accommodate diverse cultural and religious practices. They also asked for a relaxation of the strict requirements on how short shorts and skirts can be.
The following week, at a regularly scheduled Board of Education meeting, many speakers showed up to support those students’ efforts. Children and adults took turns addressing the BOE and asking for a more common-sense policy that removed some of the most restrictive elements from the current one. At that meeting, Superintendent Dr. Danny Robertozzi said that the Policy Committee was already reaching out to students for input and that they would be speaking to teachers, administrators, parents, and other stakeholders to get a broad sense of what most people are looking for. “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,” he said.
On Monday, September 18, Robertozzi met with nearly a dozen community members to continue the discussion. No decisions were made at this meeting; that is the responsibility of the BOE, but two members of the Policy Committee were in attendance and they will bring the feedback from the meeting to their committee for consideration. One commissioner said that they are definitely in favor of an updated policy that reflects the current needs of the student population.
The meeting began with Robertozzi asking, “What is reasonable?” He acknowledged that the current dress code policy seems outdated in places and shared some of the feedback from the student focus groups. One of the biggest violations last year was for wearing biker shorts. The students didn’t see any reason why they couldn’t wear them and Robertozzi said that he agreed with them. Students also pointed out that requiring shorts to come within two inches of the knee was not only unreasonable but difficult to follow, at least for girls. Shorts of that length are not easy to find outside of styles typically worn by boys. Some questioned why Crocs, the plastic shoes that come in dozens of colors, were not permitted. Administration relaxed that ruling and they are now allowed.
The focus group went through the dress code, line by line, and discussed each point. In nearly all cases, opinions were unanimous or nearly so. Many of the items seem to unfairly burden girls and young women with the responsibility of not being a distraction by simply having bodies that look a certain way. The focus group was largely in agreement that telling girls not to show their shoulders or not to wear form-fitting clothes (like yoga pants) was not only discriminatory but sent a bad message. So many girls are already self-conscious about their bodies; drawing so much attention to the issue by way of the dress code only emphasizes that.
The group of parents and educators agreed that it was perfectly reasonable to insist that undergarments not be worn as outerwear or otherwise be on display but when it came to the issue of ripped clothing, most didn’t see it as an issue, as long as the rips did not make underwear visible.
Several participants were not in favor of allowing spaghetti straps on tank tops but others saw no issue with them, saying that the only difference between that and an allowed tank top was a few inches of shoulder. Nobody voiced an objection to sweatpants, fleece, or pajama pants…all of which are comfortable and have no impact on safety or learning. Donna Popowich, a former teacher in the group said, “I just want to teach; I don’t want to be the fashion police.”
Robertozzi was prepared for some controversy when the group got to the item that prohibits shorts and skirts shorter than two inches above the knee. “I want something that’s reasonable,” he said. Everyone in the group agreed that the two-inch rule needed to be fixed. One participant suggested that the policy include language that addresses functionality. “Clothing must cover undergarments and allow students to participate freely in typical school activities.” This proved to be a well-received suggestion and further discussion acknowledged its broad applicability, allowing some current policy points to be possibly eliminated. Popowich then shared an image she’d seen used in other school districts that were revamping their own dress codes. The specifics, she said, could be edited to fit our district's expectations.
Perhaps the most dated prohibition in the dress code, the requirement to tuck all non-collared shirts into the waistband, was roundly mocked with some saying that it sounded like it came from the 1950’s. That point seems destined for elimination and was likely not being enforced.
Throughout the meeting, Robertozzi often expressed his surprise at things that had been deemed inappropriate. The one thing that he would not budge on, he said, was the policy regarding messages on clothing. Anything that references violence, drugs, or alcohol, or is obscene is not permitted in school. Everyone agreed that this was the one thing that needed to remain in any updated policy.
Popowich summed up her participation by saying, “I think my purpose on the committee was to provide input for a new dress code which would take up less classroom time, produce fewer negative teacher-student Interactions, and be sexually neutral while acknowledging fashion trends and students’ first amendment rights to freedom of artistic expression. As a parent, I want to make sure my expectations for my family are not imposed on other families who may have different ideas.”
Joe Canova, former BOE commissioner running for election again, was also a member of this focus group. His oldest daughter was instrumental in the letter-writing campaign in May. “[The meeting] couldn’t have gone better,” he said, “I’m hopeful that we will finally put this to rest.”