Shortly after her daughter arrived at school, Eboni Banks got a phone call. Her sixth-grader was wearing leggings and her shirt apparently wasn’t long enough, in violation of her school’s dress code. Her daughter asked: Could Banks please bring a pair of jeans to school?
Banks rushed to Mattawoman Middle School in Waldorf, Md., where she found her daughter, then 11, sitting in the nurse’s office, rather than class, because of her attire: a black waist-length short-sleeve shirt, pink sweater jacket and a pair of black-and-pink leggings. Under school rules, the outfit crossed the line. Leggings could be a distraction.
“I couldn’t believe they forced her to miss reading,” Banks said. School administrators told her that October morning that if girls wear leggings, they must wear shirts that extend at least to their fingertips, an effort to cover up what might draw attention during the school day.
Banks is challenging that dress code, which she sees as unfairly targeting girls. She has taken the issue to administrators, the school board and to federal officials, filing a civil rights complaint alleging gender bias.
“Administrators are being allowed to discriminate . . . and engage in body shaming behaviors,” Banks wrote in her complaint.
Dress code clashes across the country have focused on girls’ attire that school district officials deem too suggestive or revealing; some schools have turned to uniforms as a solution. As leggings have grown in popularity, they have become a flash point in some school districts, said Jo Paoletti, a University of Maryland professor and dress historian who focuses on gender expression.
“The definition of what is sexy or inappropriate changes all the time,” Paoletti said. “Fashion keeps inventing things, and then the dress code writers have to figure out whether to be outraged and ban things.”
Girls in some schools have pushed back against dress codes that they say are anti-female and were created so boys don’t get distracted. Some have taken to social media, using such hashtags as #iamnotadistraction. Girls at a middle school in Frederick County, Md., recently waged a protest, spurring an effort for change.
Banks said her daughter is an honor roll student at her school in Charles County. She loves school and dreams of being a doctor; that she missed 20 minutes of reading class “over a couple inches of fabric,” was outrageous, Banks said.
“My concern is that it has a negative impact on girls and their self-esteem and how they feel about their bodies,” she said. “They’re going to be pulled out of class and missing instructional time because of this nonsense? It’s just so blatantly discriminatory, and it’s so sexist. It made my blood boil.”
Banks said school officials mentioned the rule at Mattawoman’s back-to-school night but that the dress code was not enforced. The day her daughter got called out — Oct. 6 — she said she saw other girls wearing leggings, seemingly without consequences.
Banks brought the issue to a vice principal, then the principal. Banks said the principal told her she made the leggings rule because black and Latino girls tend to have “badonkadonks” or “junk in the trunk,” a stereotypical reference to the size of their buttocks.
“I was totally shocked,” said Banks, who, like the principal, is African American. The school’s enrollment is 74 percent black and 8 percent Hispanic.
Principal Sonia Jones said in an interview with The Washington Post that she never made such comments. “ ‘Junk in the trunk’ and ‘badonkadonks’ are not in my vernacular,” she said. “I would never refer to a student’s body parts in such a way when I was talking to a parent or anyone else. It’s unprofessional.”
Jones said she has emphasized the dress code in several ways, including at parent meetings and during morning announcements. At back-to-school night every year, she gets a standing ovation when she reviews the dress code, she said.
The leggings rule does not discriminate against minority students or girls, she said.
“Boys have to pull their jeans up over their hips,” she said. “We have expectations for all of the children.”
She said her goal for the school’s students is career and college readiness, which includes helping them recognize that “different occasions in their life call for different attire.”
School district officials in Charles County say that Banks’s daughter was not singled out. As with a police officer issuing a speeding ticket, not all violators are caught at any given time, they said.
“The young lady was in violation,” said Marvin Jones, an executive director of schools. “They asked her to do what they would do with any other student.”
The districtwide dress code in Charles County does not allow suggestive, provocative or excessively tight clothing. There is no mention of leggings in particular, but principals may create additional rules, and all eight of the county’s middle schools require that leggings be worn only with shirts that extend to the fingertips, officials said.
The leggings rule reflects districtwide requirements about the length of shorts and skirts, with a fingertips provision, Marvin Jones said. He said clothes viewed as unsafe or distracting to the school environment are unacceptable. With leggings, the concern is distraction, he said.
“It’s not anything we believe to be unfair to the girls,” he said.
For those who break the rules, district officials said standard practice is to send students to “in-school retention” — a kind of study hall for students with minor infractions — until a parent arrives with replacement clothing. If parents can’t come, administrators often offer items such as gym shorts or longer T-shirts, said district spokeswoman Katie O’Malley-Simpson.
Such dress code violations are not typically considered disciplinary offenses and there are no records related to how many such violations occur each year, Charles County officials said.
Girls at Urbana Middle School in Frederick County, Md., reacted to enforcement of dress code restrictions about spaghetti straps and short shorts in August with a protest, creating bright yellow T-shirts that read, “I am more than a distraction.”
“To me, it’s not about being able to wear certain kinds of clothing,” said Sophia Plaschke, 13, an eighth-grader at Urbana Middle who was part of the protest. “It’s more about the message behind it. What the administrators are basically saying is that it’s the girl’s responsibility to cover up so that the boys don’t get distracted.”
Urbana Middle School Principal Peter Daddone has since offered to work with the students to create a dress code that falls within district guidelines and is fair and equitable.
“The dress code was really sexist,” said Sola Beers-Arthur, 13, who was involved in the protest. “It had a bunch of rules for girls and almost none for the boys.”
Banks said she is waiting to hear back from federal officials about her civil rights complaint. An Education Department spokesman said the Office for Civil Rights does not publicly confirm whether it has received specific complaints; if an investigation is opened, the office informs those involved and the public as appropriate.
Banks said her daughter was upset the day of the incident, but has let it go. Banks has pursued it, she said, because she feels a larger conversation is needed.
“I don’t want other girls to be humiliated like that and taken out of class,” she said. “It’s degrading.”