When a North Texas school district returns from summer break in August, many of its students might find themselves looking for new wardrobes knowing that they will be unable to wear dresses, skirts or hoodies as part of the district’s effort to promote professionalism.
“The use of a school dress code is established to improve student self-esteem, bridge socio-economic differences among students, and promote positive behavior, thereby enhancing school safety and improving the learning environment,” the district wrote in its announcement to parents.
Those who don’t follow the new dress code against dresses, skirts and hoodies face an in-school suspension for the rest of the day “until the problem is corrected, or until a parent or designee brings an acceptable change of clothing to the school,” according to the district.
But the dress code has brought backlash from students, parents and critics accusing the district of enforcing “unfair policies” targeting students, especially girls. Forney High School student Brooklynn Hollaman started a petition against the dress code that has garnered nearly 4,000 signatures as of Friday morning.
“Any sensible person can realize that this is completely wrong,” wrote Hollaman, a rising sophomore.
Forney ISD spokeswoman Kristin Zastoupil told The Washington Post that no one from the district was available for an interview on Friday. She said the videos released by the district, located about 25 miles east of Dallas, are part of Forney ISD’s initiative on “resetting our bar to go back for the future of our kids.”
“In our annual review of the existing dress code, the few changes approved by the board were made to simplify the dress code for all 15,000 students,” she said in an email.
Historians have noted how school dress codes have been a way to assert power and control over students. Einav Rabinovitch-Fox, an assistant professor of American history and women’s and gender history at Case Western Reserve University, wrote in The Post last year about the long history schools had of imposing codes of appearance and behavior, from uniforms to rules of conduct.
“As social institutions that are meant to prepare future citizens to function in society, schools are hardly democratic spaces. Instead, schools use their authority to enforce social values through curriculum choices, enrollment decisions and also dress codes,” Rabinovitch-Fox wrote. “Dress codes have usually targeted women and minorities, continuing a long tradition of policing these groups’ appearance and presence in public.”
In Texas, at least one school district made masks part of its dress code last year to exploit a loophole in Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s statewide ban on mandates regarding face coverings during the coronavirus pandemic. The Paris Independent School District of about 4,000 students announced that masks were in the dress code after its board of trustees said it was “concerned about the health and safety of its students and employees.”
Forney ISD introduced its Back for the Future initiative earlier this month in a YouTube video. On Monday, the district released its updated dress code. The seven-page document outlines how “repeated offenses may result in more serious disciplinary action in accordance with the Student Code of Conduct.”
In a separate YouTube video accompanying the notice to parents on Wednesday, FISD Superintendent Justin Terry said the updated dress code was one way the district wanted to “work together to take our schools, our classrooms, back for the future of our kids to have a safe, enjoyable and exciting learning environment.”
“There are so many important future workforce skills that we want to impart in our kids as they head off to have a successful future,” Terry said.
The video this week features a voice-over from a young student offering her support of the dress code and the district’s push for professionalism.
“I may be a little young to understand what professionalism means right now, but the skills I’m learning are an essential part of being successful in my future career,” the student says. “Every profession has a dress code, whether it’s scrubs, a welding helmet or a chef’s apron. The way I dress plays an important role in professionalism and safety, both in the classroom and on the job site.”
When Hollaman heard about the new dress code, she started the petition with the support of her parents. She told WFAA that other friends and classmates are upset with the district’s decision outlawing dresses, skirts and hoodies.
“I think people should be able to wear them as long as they’re appropriate,” she said.
Her father, Derick Hollaman, told the TV station that he contacted the district this week to ask about the dress code — and was surprised to hear the reasoning behind the moves.
“I was told that basically hoodies were a safety issue that kids wouldn’t take the hoods off their head,” he said. “When I asked regarding the dresses, I was told that they were trying to teach professionalism.”
Others who have signed the Change.org petition argue that the ban of dresses and skirts signals that “all female students are being denied the freedom to dress as young ladies.” One poster who identified as a Forney ISD student wrote that their classmates felt “greatly violated” by the dress code.
“My fellow students and classmates are enraged due to this abrupt change,” Harley Anderson wrote. “They claim it’s for ‘raising students Self-esteem’, but they failed to consider that this is taking it away. By not allowing us to feel comfortable in our own learning environment, we automatically get drained of these kind of things.”
Anderson added, “This district has desperately failed to think about the student body well being while they claim they are trying their ‘absolute best.’ ”
Brooklynn Hollaman is planning to present the petition to the school board on Monday, in hope that the district will again allow dresses, skirts and hoodies for all students, according to WFAA. The teen told local media that she was saddened about how the ban on skirts affected not just her and the high-schoolers but also her little sister and anyone from the fifth grade on.
“We got the momentum going,” she said.