DeKalb students: Enforcement data shows unfairness of dress code

Students from Lakeside High School will address the DeKalb school board Monday on a topic that never seems to go away — dress codes. In a guest column today, five Lakeside students explain why they want their school board to review the district’s dress code enforcement.

Alarmed over how Lakeside High administrators applied the dress code and to whom, a group of students looked at data showing the race and gender of students written up for dress code violations.

“We analyzed the data and found that girls and people of color are significantly more likely to be dress-coded. This backed up our impression that the dress code targets certain groups unfairly. We were then able meet with the DCSD interim superintendent, Dr. Tinsley. She was supportive of our goal, and we have been in contact since then,” said group founder Anna Katz, a sophomore at Lakeside High School.

I applaud Katz and her fellow students who, unhappy with their school’s enforcement of a dress code they deem antiquated and biased, gathered data to make their case and distilled it into a PowerPoint presentation, some of which is shared in this column.

I hope the school board pays attention. The fealty to school dress codes despite evidence the codes are often sexist and racist baffles me. School districts ought to study the current research, talk to their own staff psychologists about the damage to the well-being of girls from dress codes and get out of the business of policing children’s bodies.

By Nora Barksdale, Caitlyn Bemiss, Troy Butler, Hannah Choi and Anna Katz

Imagine you are a third grade girl joyously swinging upside down on the monkey bars with your friends. That morning, you put on a top and your favorite skirt, with leggings underneath that your mom made you wear due to the cold weather. In front of all of your friends, a teacher pulls you aside and says, “You are getting too old to be swinging around like that. Your body is maturing, so be more considerate of what you’re showing off.”

You feel confused, looking around at your peers, all wearing skirts and leggings like you. The only apparent difference between you and the other girls, still swinging on the monkey bars, is the color of your skin.

This story is one of many that our group of Lakeside High School students collected over the last few months. Our group formed after hearing countless stories from students detailing their frustrations with the dress code and its enforcement. As we witnessed administrators dress-coding students and lines of girls formed outside of the discipline office, we became frustrated with the fixation on what we were wearing and the class time missed as a result of it.

How could a system dedicated to our learning consistently value the clothes we wore over our instruction?

Students heading to class now specifically plan their routes to avoid administrators. The dress code has created an environment of fear and mistrust. Students no longer feel that they can go to their administrators for academic or logistical help out of fear of being dress-coded.

One Lakeside student recounted going to the office to ask an administrator for menstrual products. Instead of receiving support, she was reprimanded and met with hostility for the rips in her jeans. The dress code overshadows other issues to the point where the priorities of our school system are being ignored.

The DeKalb County School District lists six core beliefs including “cultivating a community … in which all individuals are valued” and “embracing our district’s … diversity and using it to create an environment of educational excellence.”

We surveyed students, most of whom believe the dress code targets girls and people of color. Data provided by Lakeside High School shows that belief reflects the reality.

While people of color make up 68% of the student population, they represent 80% of dress-coded students. Additionally, despite making up less than 50% of the Lakeside enrollment, 86% of students dress-coded are female. Male students make up the majority of the student body, yet are dress-coded at a disproportionately lower rate.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Although our statistics come from Lakeside, they represent a larger issue across the county. A Druid Hills High School student told us, “My chemistry teacher told my class that the dress code is only for girls. In general, girls just get dress-coded way more.”

But this isn’t just a problem in high schools. Girls are being targeted at ages as young as 6 and 7. A student from Briarlake Elementary shared her experience about getting dress-coded each morning on the way to class for shorts above fingertip length.

The DeKalb County dress code teaches young, impressionable girls that their clothing is “inappropriate” or “distracting.” The real distraction is the disturbance of instruction and the feelings of shame and anxiety that the dress code instills.

As the school board has become more aware of these issues, they have reformed the dress code to include less targeted language. However, there is a disconnect between the written dress code and what is administered in schools. As the county updates the dress code, schools like Lakeside High School continue to adhere to an outdated dress code from previous years.

To comply with the outdated dress code, students must purchase a separate wardrobe. Of the women’s shorts sold on the Old Navy website, only 8% have an inseam that would reach mid-thigh for the average American woman. Finding and purchasing a separate wardrobe for school is an unnecessary stress for many students, especially those in lower-income households.

Ultimately, the question of what is appropriate is subjective and should not be in the hands of administrators. To prevent biases and foster a more inclusive environment within schools, we need to rewrite the dress code.

We must first consider why it exists. A dress code is meant to uphold learning, safety, and image in schools. The DCSD dress code has many rules that have no apparent justification.

When writing our own model dress code proposal, we ensured each rule was there for a reason, and could be backed by safety, learning, or image. For example, the current dress code states that clothing with “rips or tears are prohibited.” Unless students are in a class where exposed skin is a hazard, there is no rational reason rips in jeans should be prohibited. The dress code should focus on ensuring that all students are able to learn properly and participate in classroom activities.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

The most pressing issue with the current dress code is enforcement. When dress-coding students, it is important they aren’t removed from class. Additionally, administrators should use objective language regarding the clothing item, not the student’s body.

When dress-coding students, administrators should explain what is in violation and work with students to fix the problem, and get them back to class. Furthermore, disciplinary actions such as in school suspension should not be used.

As students, we’re exhausted. It is the district’s job to ensure all students receive an education in an equitable learning environment. We are disappointed in the lack of change after this issue has been brought up countless times. Clear solutions exist yet we still feel the need to advocate for change.

Our group has met with DeKalb County interim Superintendent Vasanne S. Tinsley and will be speaking at the DeKalb school board meeting Monday at 5:45 pm. We hope our work brings light to the issues going on within our schools and will create systemic change for future DeKalb County students.