For generations, girls have been sent to the principal’s office for violating dress codes: Shorts must reach past fingertips. Shirts can’t be too low-cut. No spaghetti straps. No cleavage.
But these rules are often enforced in uneven ways, and black girls are disproportionately targeted, students from the District said in a report last year from the National Women’s Law Center. Now, some of those students are beginning to speak up — organizing walkouts, lunchtime protests and meetings with administrators to call out dress codes they see as unfair.
In a new report released Wednesday, the National Women’s Law Center highlighted some of these recent shifts and rated D.C. public and charter high schools based on the strictness of their dress code policies.
The researchers found that, among 29 D.C. schools, majority-black high schools on average had more dress code restrictions than other high schools. And charter schools in the District, on average, had more than twice the number of dress code restrictions than traditional public schools in the 2018-2019 school year.
“Especially in this Me Too movement that we’re in, schools shouldn’t be teaching students that it’s okay to scrutinize girls’ bodies ... or make them feel like they have to cover up or feel less than,” said Nia Evans, author and lead researcher of the report. “Schools are literally showing students how to police and judge and shame girls’ bodies, and that’s wrong.”
The study included a report card that rated each school based on whether its policies included one of 12 types of restrictions, such as requiring a uniform; restricting tank tops, width of sleeves or tightness of clothing; requiring a certain length for skirts or shorts; or banning tights, leggings, or certain hats or head wraps.
Twelve schools received a grade of F for having five or more dress code restrictions. Seven of the 29 schools had dress code policies with eight or more dress code restrictions. Each one of those was a charter school.
Additionally, six schools did not make their dress code policies available, according to the report. While some policies made clear they intended to remain gender-neutral, many of the dress codes focused on clothes usually worn by girls.
“Crop tops, tube tops, halters and spaghetti straps are unacceptable (anything less than 2 inches is considered a spaghetti strap.) Strapless dresses without jackets are unacceptable,” states the dress code from the Theodore Roosevelt High School Student Handbook. “The display of cleavage is unacceptable. Low cut blouses, tops, sweaters, etc. with plunging necklines are not allowed.”
More than half of D.C. public and charter high schools outlined certain punishments for dress code violations, such as detention or a call to a parent. Many previously included suspensions as consequences, but beginning in the 2020-2021 school year, public schools in the District will be prohibited from issuing out-of-school suspensions for dress code violations. The D.C. Council recently passed the Student Fair Access to School Act, which prohibits out-of-school suspensions for minor infractions, including dress code violations.
The report released Wednesday follows up on a similar NWLC report, released last year, on D.C. school dress codes.
In a statement Wednesday, a D.C. Public Schools spokesman said officials have facilitated feedback sessions with teachers, students and staff across the district to review the earlier NWLC report and offer recommendations to improve schools’ existing dress code policies. The district has also worked directly with schools to learn more about their dress code policies, how they are implemented, what they are doing to support students who are impacted by the dress code policy, and providing support where it is needed, according to the statement.
“Our goal is always to provide safe and welcoming learning environments for all students, especially our young women and students of color,” the statement read. “DCPS has been proactive in addressing the needs of our students and we also have clear systems in place for students, families, and staff members to report any incidents in which they have felt treated unfairly.”
A spokeswoman for the D.C. Public Charter School Board said each public charter school has the flexibility and responsibility to set its own dress code policies for its students as long as policies follow the Student Fair Access to School Act.
“Some require uniforms, while others set specific standards for all genders,” the statement read.
Nearly 80 percent of the D.C. high schools reviewed in the report required uniforms. And across the country, school uniforms are on the rise. More than 40 percent of the nation’s public schools and preschools now use uniforms, according to government data.
Proponents of uniforms say they provide students with a sense of belonging, help maintain school decorum and are a convenient and cost-saving option for parents. Some studies show that students who wear uniforms perform better academically. But critics, including some parents, say they limit individuality and self-expression. Many schools that require uniforms still impose restrictions on skirt lengths and other details.
When school policies enforce restrictions on clothing perceived as too tight or low-cut, the report’s authors write, girls who are curvier or more developed often end up being punished for their body types. And across the country, black girls are five times as likely as white girls to be suspended in schools.
Adaku Onyeka-Crawford, director of educational equity and senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, said such dress code violations disrupt students’ learning and level of comfort in schools.
“If you’re constantly being scrutinized or concerned just because of how you look, that will affect how you learn in the classroom and it will affect whether or not you want to be there,” she said.
Many restrictive dress codes, Onyeka-Crawford added, are “promoting a standard of professionalism that is actually just a standard of whiteness,” particularly when it comes to hairstyles.
Calls for changes to dress codes in schools also parallel efforts to change dress codes in workplaces, Onyeka-Crawford said. For example, California recently became the first state to explicitly ban discrimination based on natural hair in the workplace and in K-12 schools.
And in schools across the District in the past year, students have been calling on their administrators to take similar measures.
In September of last year, students at Duke Ellington School of the Arts noticed that school administrators were singling out students for wearing head wraps, even though the school’s policies don’t prohibit them. In response, students planned a “head wrap clapback” protest, in which students wore head wraps, bonnets or durags to school, according to the NWLC report.
Students at School Without Walls High School in the District organized lunchtime protests to call attention to what they saw as uneven enforcement of their school’s dress code. In 2017, school officials formed a dress code committee, but the committee’s recommendations were not adopted, the report said. After student protests, the school’s administrators worked with a dress code task force to adopt a revised policy, the NWLC report stated.
“There’s less room for teacher discretion in enforcing the dress code or through discrimination based on body shape or body size,” Samantha O’Sullivan, 18, a graduate from School Without Walls High School, was quoted as saying in the report.
For a final project for a design class last year, Keontria Wainwright, a 17-year-old student from Capital City Public Charter School, produced a documentary about how dress codes were affecting girls in her school. She has also called for more relaxed dress codes as a member of her student council, she said in an interview with The Washington Post.
Wainwright recalled how bothered she felt seeing a teacher ask a classmate to take off her head wrap in a class. Wainwright said she herself has long legs and struggles to find dresses that meet the length required by her school’s dress code.
One time, Wainwright recounted, a teacher saw her in the hallway and questioned the length of a dress she was wearing. “Are you sure that it’s three inches above the knee?” the teacher asked.
Wainwright spent the rest of the day pulling her dress down, covering her legs with a sweater and feeling uneasy about how she looked.
“It makes us second-guess ourselves,” Wainwright said. “We can’t be free and wear what we want.”