This outfit got parent Joselyn Lewis turned away from a high school in Houston, Texas.
Photo: KPRC-TV 
Photo: KPRC-TV 

Should schools impose dress codes on parents?

I’ve long opposed school dress codes, which target girls and convey the message their appearance is more important than their education. 

I am even more skeptical of dress codes for parents. Schools have struggled to find ways to entice parents to show up; why impose an arbitrary dress code that may dissuade them from attending school functions?

Parent dress codes are in the news as result of a bill in Tennessee that would mandate every school district there develop rules on acceptable attire for parents. The Memphis lawmaker behind the effort is holding his legislation until next year due to the controversy around it. 

A Texas high school recently turned away a mother attempting to register her daughter because of the woman’s outfit.

Earlier this month, James Madison High School in Houston told Joselyn Lewis she could not come into the school because her T-shirt dress and headscarf violated rules for parent attire. The dress bore an image of Marilyn Monroe.

When Lewis demanded to see the parent dress code, she said the school called the police. (Lewis was transferring her daughter to Madison High from another school where she said the teen had been bullied.)

In an interview with a Houston TV station, Lewis said, “I didn’t understand why my headscarf and my dress would conflict with me enrolling someone in school.” 

I see no problem with what Lewis wore. Her dress was not immodest, and I have no idea why the scarf troubled the school. 

Lewis said she wore a scarf as she was in the midst of getting her hair done, telling KPRC-TV (Channel 2), “I’m not saying that it’s a part of my religion, but it could have been, but I just wanted to have it up. Who are you to say that I can’t wear my hair up? In a scarf? Who are you to tell me how to dress?”

On the following day, Madison High principal Outley Brown – the school’s fourth principal in five years – published a memo on the school website banning parents inside and outside school premises from wearing shower caps, satin caps or bonnets, sagging pants, hair rollers, pajamas, leggings, low-cut tops and dresses or shorts “that are up to your behind.”

The prohibition on leggings inspired some quips on Twitter, including this one:

In her memo, Brown assured parents the school valued their role in their child’s education, but the school has “standards…this is a professional environment where we are teaching what is right, what is correct or what is not correct.”

The memo did not go over well with everyone at the school. As the Houston Chronicle reports:

“I’m almost insulted,” said Tomiko Miller, the mother of a Madison High School student. “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.”

Zeph Capo, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, called codes relating to women’s hair “classist,” “belittling” and “dismissive.”

“I’m sorry — this principal may have plenty of money and time to go to the hairdresser weekly and have her stuff done,” he said. “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.”

Given the push to get more parents into schools, this dress code seems counterproductive. And like all school dress codes, it focuses on women’s bodies. 

Based on the comments in Texas media, I am in the minority. Many readers of the Houston Chronicle echoed this sentiment about parent dress regulations:

At Houston schools over the span of 25 years, I have seen parents in sheer nightgowns, pajamas, pants far below the buttocks (cracks showing) and much more. I even saw a parent, at an elementary school, wearing a T-shirt with animals fornicating. Why shouldn't we hold parents to the same dress standards as students--after all, they are setting an example for their kids to follow. Uniforms are established at schools so there will be no distractions from the academic atmosphere. 

They also help eradicate the issues of class, gender and race. Wear want you want at home, but schools should hold standards of academic excellence and professionalism, with no distractions, for all who enter.

Your thoughts?

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.