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The long and short of a Maryland school’s dress code sparks protest

Some students at Albert Einstein High School in Kensington, Md., are unhappy about a new dress code. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

The dress code memo to students and parents at a suburban Maryland high school didn’t leave much to the imagination.

“Skirts and dresses must not show private areas when sitting, walking, climbing stairs or doing normal school activities,” the new principal at Albert Einstein High School, Christine C. Handy, wrote in an email last week. “Shorts must not expose private areas when sitting, walking, climbing stairs, or doing normal school activities.”

Also forbidden: “Bandeaus, backless tops, exposed midriffs, or visible undergarments.”

The missive on what’s appropriate for students to wear received a mixed reaction from students and parents at the Montgomery County public school. Some supported Handy’s effort to target clothing they said is more appropriate for the beach or the boardwalk than a classroom. Many others argued the new standards are sexist, ill-conceived and impossible to enforce fairly.

The issue has percolated on group texts and social media platforms in the past week, and students launched at least two petitions calling for Handy to reconsider the policy. Last week, some of those students protested at the school by dressing in just the manner the new policy proscribes.

“They broke the dress code, but it was within reason. They were not being super inappropriate,” said a junior girl who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak openly about the issue outside the Kensington school.

Handy’s email about the dress code noted that T-shirts invoking inappropriate language, gangs, sexual innuendos or weapons are banned. But this is what irked many students: The bulk of the message focused on what was not acceptable for girls to wear at school.

Dress codes and their enforcement have long been an issue as every generation of students tests the boundaries of appropriateness and pushes back against what it feels are overly restrictive policies. But how dress codes are enforced has become increasingly controversial.

In a recent report, the National Women’s Law Center found that among 29 D.C. schools, there were more dress code restrictions in majority-black high schools than other high schools. And public charter schools in the District had, on average, more than twice the number of dress code restrictions as traditional public schools in the 2018-2019 school year.

In response, some D.C. students have organized walkouts and met with school leaders to address what they see as unfair implementation and enforcement of dress code policies.

“Especially in this #MeToo 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,” Nia Evans, author and lead researcher of the women’s law center report, told The Washington Post earlier this month.

Handy defended the new dress code in a statement she sent in response to a Washington Post query.

“The Albert Einstein High School guidelines, which were created in collaboration with students leaders and are aligned with [school system] policy, provide greater clarity for students and staff and ensure that expectations are universally understood and applied,” Handy wrote. “I truly value student voice and believe that a student-informed policy for dress is important. I plan to meet with additional students in the coming weeks and months to discuss any concerns or questions they may have.”

Derek G. Turner, a spokesman for the Montgomery County Public Schools, said campuses have flexibility to determine a dress code within the boundaries of the district policy.

A number of students interviewed at the school, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak freely about the matter, said the new rules target girls and could cause body image issues.

“What clothing exactly constitutes ‘too much information?’ ” a senior girl asked. “Body types are different, and it could single out girls who are a certain body type. And that’s not a particularly good message to send out to young females.”

And, students said, they worry that enforcement of the dress code will be arbitrary.

“It becomes about teachers using their judgment about what’s appropriate and what’s inappropriate, and that in itself is kind of gross,” another junior girl said.

Not all students oppose the rules. Wendy Ramirez, a senior, said she didn’t have any problem with the new policy.

“Some of what the girls wear is inappropriate,” Ramirez said.

“You can see everything!” a friend chimed in.

Ramirez agreed that girls should not be singled out though. “Some guys’ pants are too low, and that is not appropriate either,” she said.

Einstein students said the school last year followed the Montgomery County system’s dress code guidelines but that they were rarely enforced. The new code was presented to students in assemblies this month.

Parents have also been debating the clothing edict. Many have weighed in on a school email group.

Liz Brent, whose daughter attends Einstein, said she’s not opposed to a dress code, but thinks it should be a systemwide policy, one that spells out in detail not only what is considered a violation but how those transgressions will be enforced. She said she doesn’t want the policing of attire to land on teachers who have more important things to worry about.

“It would take a full-time employee at any high school to manage this,” Brent said in an interview. Instead, she recommended that Montgomery County schools adopt the dress code from the neighboring Howard County school system, which includes a detailed policy statement and implementation procedures. By contrast, the Montgomery County dress code is just a paragraph long.

Felicia Lulli, who also has a daughter at Einstein, said she doesn’t want the dress code to become a burden on the faculty either, but she thinks students should see school as a place where they are held to a high standard.

“Different clothes are appropriate in different places,” Lulli said. “Of course, no girls should be shamed or embarrassed, but all workplaces have dress codes, and I think students also need to know how to dress for school.”

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