The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A high school’s new dress code bans leggings, pajamas and silk bonnets — for parents

Principal Carlotta Outley Brown, pictured in April 2018, has implemented a dress code for parents at James Madison High School in Houston. (Marie D. De Jesus/Houston Chronicle/AP)

It’s not exactly unusual for school dress codes to become a source of controversy. But the latest flare-up has a new twist: This time, it’s parents being told what they can and can’t wear on campus.

As the Houston Chronicle first reported, one high school principal warned parents earlier this month that they will be turned away if they show up at their child’s school wearing hair rollers, leggings, silk bonnets or any other items on a list of banned clothing. The announcement followed a widely publicized incident in which a prospective parent was turned away from the school for showing up in a T-shirt dress and headscarf.

“We are preparing your child for a prosperous future,” Carlotta Outley Brown, the principal of James Madison High School in Houston, wrote in a letter to parents on April 9. “We want them to know what is appropriate and what is not appropriate for any setting they might be in.”

To many parents, KTRK reported, the dress code appeared to be laden with racial undertones. For one thing, it didn’t apply to the whole school district, just to one high school with a majority of minority and low-income students. According to the Houston Independent School District, 58 percent of the students at Madison High School are Hispanic, and 40 percent are African American. Nearly three-quarters of the students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch.

“I’m almost insulted,” Tomiko Miller, the mother of a current student, told the Chronicle. “I really think it was discriminatory, the language that was used. It was demeaning. And I’m African American — and if it’s misty outside and I have a hair bonnet on, I don’t see how that’s anyone’s business.”

In her letter to parents, Brown wrote that sagging pants or shorts were off limits, and men couldn’t arrive in undershirts. Low-cut tops were banned, as were “leggings that are showing your bottom” and “shorts that are up to your behind.” Same with pajamas “or any other attire that could possibly be pajamas.”

So were the head coverings that many black women wear to protect their hair. “No one can enter the building or be on the school premises wearing a satin cap or bonnet on their head for any reason,” Brown wrote, adding that shower caps were also prohibited. The guidelines, she said, would apply to off-campus events as well.

“We value you but we must ask you to value and follow the rules of the school environment,” she wrote.

The debate is more than a conversation about clothing. It’s a conversation about gender and social norms across generations. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

Brown is African American and a graduate of Madison High School. She told the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday that the dress code had been necessary because “parents were coming in risque clothes.” In her memo to parents, she explained that she felt it was important to have “high standards” and to demonstrate to children how they should dress in an educational setting.

Others saw the policy differently. “This is ELITISM and RESPECTABILITY POLITICS.” Ashton P. Woods, a candidate for Houston City Council and a founder of Black Lives Matter Houston, wrote on Twitter. “She should be fired. Most of the parents likely cannot afford to comply with this dress code. This is not 1984.”

Zeph Capo, the president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, described the rules as “classist.”

“I’m sorry — this principal may have plenty of money and time to go to the hairdresser weekly and have her stuff done,” he told the Chronicle. “Who are you to judge others who may not have the same opportunities that you do? Having a wrap on your head is not offensive. It should not be controversial.”

The letter announcing the policy appears to have been sent out one day after a confrontation between school officials and a parent looking to enroll her child. Joselyn Lewis told KPRC that she showed up at the campus in a T-shirt dress and headscarf on April 8, and was told she wouldn’t be allowed on the premises because of how she was dressed.

Thinking that there had been a mix-up, Lewis clarified that she was a parent, not a student. But the administrator insisted that the rules applied to her, too.

“She said that my headscarf was out of dress code and my dress was too short,” Lewis told the station.

Though Lewis had wrapped a scarf around her head that day because she was getting her hair done, she pointed out that she could have had other reasons for covering up. “I’m not saying that it’s a part of my religion, but it could have been,” she said.

At the time, the school had no parent dress code listed on its website, and Lewis said that administrators refused to show her proof that it existed. When she wouldn’t leave, she said, they called the police. The school’s memo to parents is dated April 9, the following day.

“Who are you to say that I can’t wear my hair up?” Lewis asked. “In a scarf? Who are you to tell me how to dress?”

Another parent, Rosemary Young, told KTRK that she rushed to the school on Tuesday after her son broke his arm, only for school officials to hand her a copy of the parent dress code because she was still wearing a satin cap. To her, the rules didn’t make any sense.

“If we come here belligerent, out of control, things of that nature, that’s what you have the police for,” she told the station. “But what I wear should never be an issue.”

But the policy is not without its supporters, and elsewhere in the country, one lawmaker has suggested making parental dress codes mandatory for all schools.

Earlier this year, Tennessee state Rep. Antonio Parkinson (D) introduced legislation that would require all school districts in the state to come up with a parent code of conduct, including a dress code.

“There are parents who are showing up at schools in the office with lingerie on … with cheeks hanging out,” he told the Memphis Commercial Appeal. “Imagine the teasing and the bullying that comes with that.”

More from Morning Mix:

‘If this is the new normal, I want no part of it’: Citing Trump, Iowa’s longest-serving Republican leaves party

‘Liberty Guns Bible Trump BBQ’: Deputy on leave after writing an anti-LGBTQ post mocking bullied dead teen

‘You pointless fossil’: John Cornyn’s campaign picked a fight with Patton Oswalt, and the comedian hit back