Anxious mothers of anxious daughters: That’s who Willow Reichelt heard from whenever the topic was “dress coding” – teachers reprimanding students for their clothing choices in the classroom.
Ms. Reichelt, a Chilliwack B.C., school trustee, described the day a teacher asked a Grade 5 girl if she’d worn her T-shirt to “attract boys,” before calling her parents to pick her up from school. Another student in her teens was chastised for wearing a boat-neck sweater that exposed a bra strap. Mothers complained about teenage daughters shopping in frustration for shorts that met school requirements – longer than the fingertips on a lowered arm.
Ms. Reichelt, board vice-chair at Chilliwack School District, has two teenage sons whose clothing never came under scrutiny. Determined to end what she saw as an unjust policy, Ms. Reichelt put forth a motion this spring to overhaul the district’s dress codes, arguing that the old rules discriminated on the basis of gender.
The uproar was immediate.
One trustee at a board meeting warned that an immodest dress code would spell a “free-for-all” for students who “dress in provocative ways looking for the wrong kind of attention,” also putting children at risk of “pimps” and “sexual predators” hanging around middle-school grounds. Another trustee explained that if he were a teacher, “I would not want to see some girl partially dressed sitting in front of me.”
School dress codes have long been a battleground: Young people want to express themselves, sometimes with skin, while protective adults in their lives prefer more subdued clothing choices.
A cursory scan of dress codes across Canadian schools finds them peppered with words such as “modesty,” “appropriate,” “respectful,” “common sense” and “good taste.”
But in the age-old sartorial struggle between teens and adults, the balance may now be tilting toward the children.
Culture change is playing out inside the complicated institution of the school dress code, as students call for modernization and administrators rethink the role of clothing in the classroom and the impact of punishing children for what they’ve got on.
Across the country, several school boards – including the Toronto District School Board, Canada’s largest – are doing away with the concept of modesty in their policies, replacing it with a new priority: “student voice."
The Toronto board’s shift in policy came after years of student protests about dress codes that seemed to target some children more than others – women chief among them, but also racialized students, who said they’d been inordinately disciplined for low-slung waistbands and certain types of headwear. The TDSB’s new, standardized dress code stresses equity and fairness, replacing older rules that gave staff at the board’s 582 schools more discretion about what children could wear to class. This September, tube tops, plunging necklines, exposed midriffs and thighs, hats, hoodies and pajamas will all be fair game.
Toronto and Chilliwack – which passed its new policy in June, removing an emphasis on modesty – follow two other sizable Canadian school boards that recently embraced student-centred dress codes. Victoria, B.C., revamped its guidelines in April, 2018, with Edmonton following a month later.
The new codes all come with some limits. Toronto stipulates no nipples, buttocks or genitals exposed and all the codes ban hateful messaging and put safety first, meaning no stilettos in gym class or billowing tops in chemistry. But these school boards have drawn a line in the sand – staff will no longer be tasked with policing students’ dress or their bodies.
The policy-makers’ philosophy is this: Letting students wear what they’re comfortable in helps them feel welcome at school and more engaged in their learning. This, instead of students having their lessons disrupted, being sent to the principal’s office or shamed in front of their peers over short shorts or a halter top. Conversations about specific clothing choices belong in the home, with family, according to these school officials.
While students champion the updated dress codes, some parents and teachers are wary. But Ken Jeffers, senior manager of Equitable & Inclusive System Culture, who co-ordinated consultations on Toronto’s new policy, said school administrators aren’t engaging in a “throw-the-rules-out experiment.”
“It was about designing a classroom for the 21st century.”
The new, student-centred direction in dress codes worries some parents. Maddie Di Muccio, a Newmarket, Ont., mother of three sons aged between 15 and 20, says she feels the new rules are shortsighted. If schools are to equip students for the working world, how does that square with dress codes that allow tube tops, yoga pants and pajamas in the classroom, a few years shy of children launching into nine-to-five lives?
“As adults we don’t dress any way we want to when we go to work. We dress appropriately,” said Ms. Di Muccio, who is president of Society for Quality Education, a Toronto-based advocacy group that seeks to improve childhood education across Canada. “There are certain venues in our society that have expectations.”
But for other parents and students, the very notion of respectability – and who gets to determine what is appropriate – is a potent political matter.
The Greater Victoria School District’s new dress code states that students’ clothing decisions “are intensely personal,” reflecting the socio-cultural norms they grew up with as well as their economic backgrounds. Board chair Jordan Watters, the driving force behind Victoria’s new policy, says that when school staff tell certain students that their clothing distracts others from learning, it sends “really loud messages to certain children about whose education is valued.” Ms. Watters said that while dress codes disproportionately target girls, they also impact boys, with Indigenous and racialized boys often facing greater scrutiny.
“Boys who are struggling with school and their sense of belonging there can react by trying to make themselves invisible with hoodies and hats,” Ms. Watters said. “Penalizing them does nothing to support the connections that can help these kids succeed; it just pushes them farther away.” Ms. Watters added, “A kid can learn with a ball cap on.”
In Toronto, the board began a critical rethink of its dress codes last year. Administrators scanned policies at other schools and conducted three months of consultations with students, parents, school staff, specialized advisory committees, unions and the principals’ association, among others. The overwhelming concern from students was unfair treatment. Dress codes varied widely between schools, and, students complained, were often inconsistently applied within each school.
As Toronto’s new dress code goes into effect this September, staff are barred from using “subjective discretion” that might result in discriminatory treatment of certain students; teachers are also to refrain from shaming students or forcing them to miss class time over dress-code infractions. “Enforcement must be fair, consistent and transparent,” according to the board’s publicly available FAQ.
“There is adult oversight,” Mr. Jeffers explained, “but part of it is having our staff think twice about, ‘Why am I telling that student to take their hat off? Is it because I see it as a sign of disrespect, or is it actually impinging on their ability to learn?’ Those are two different things. … At the cost of disengaging students who would normally be more engaged, what are we doing this for?”
Although she now mostly wears T-shirts and jeans, Maya Larrondo, a Grade 12 student at Toronto’s Western Technical-Commercial School, rattles off the times teachers have deemed that her shorts, dresses and crop tops were too short, or necklines plunged too low. While teachers reprimanded her discreetly, Ms. Larrondo said she also remembers days when friends were dress coded in front of the class.
“It makes for an awful day,” said Ms. Larrondo, 17. “It’s not fun to be publicly humiliated by your teacher in front of all of your peers.”
Perhaps the most telling change in Toronto’s new dress code lies in its title: gone is the word “Appropriate,” replaced by “Student.” The focus is on students first, rather than on their clothing, Mr. Jeffers explained. In a radical departure from the more disciplinarian school culture of years past, Toronto’s new dress code highlights concepts such as “self-identity” and “freedom of expression,” as well as the notion that school is both a learning and a social environment. Here, teenagers try on different impressions with their peer group through their clothing, Mr. Jeffers said.
Asked whether schools (and their dress codes) shouldn’t serve as more of a training ground for the workplace, Mr. Jeffers responded that students “are not professional employees getting paid to be there, or interns.”
“[School] does prepare students for their careers,” Mr. Jeffers said, “but it also socializes them fundamentally.”
The most incendiary issue of all in the dress-code debate revolves around skin – in particular young women’s skin – and the effect it has on others at school.
“Clothing can be distracting when it’s too ostentatious, suggestive or revealing,” Newmarket parent Ms. Di Muccio said.
“Who’s to say that if somebody is dressing perhaps a little too revealingly, that another student’s rights might not have been infringed on, because they are offended by that?”
Like the other mothers of sons interviewed by The Globe and Mail, Ms. Di Muccio said her boys have never been dress coded. Mothers of daughters, on the other hand, spoke about their girls feeling shamed by school officials who’d taken issue with their tops, shorts, skirts or dresses for being too provocative. Despite their frustration with school staff, these mothers viewed skin exposure, attention and gendered harassment as deeply tangled issues.
In Calgary, Xstine Cook and her daughter Maezy Dennie had to endure confrontations with teachers routinely in junior high, where Ms. Dennie’s bare shoulders were deemed too revealing for the classroom.
Frustrated, Ms. Dennie turned to a novel solution – a Little Red Riding Hood cape she’d worn for Halloween that hung in her locker. Every time she was admonished for her tank tops, Ms. Dennie would shroud herself in class. “The teachers would get upset because it’s distracting,” said Ms. Dennie, who is going into Grade 12, “but not as distracting as our shoulders, right?”
Her mother, a theatre artist, owns many capes, so Ms. Dennie stashed several of them in an empty locker for other girls when they’d get called in for their own infractions – a kind of silent, glaring protest.
“It was an easy solution to an absurd problem,” said Ms. Cook, who never felt her daughter dressed inappropriately for school.
Ms. Cook explained that she and her husband advocate for a modest dress style for their children – no cleavage or sky-high hemlines, they’ve told their three daughters, who are aged between 13 and 17. Ms. Cook said they’ve also talked with their teens about what kind of attention they hope to attract, and about sexual harassment.
“It’s the responsibility to have a conversation with young men, but it’s also the girls’ responsibility to recognize human nature,” Ms. Cook said. “It’s informing them about the reality of the world.”
Although Ms. Cook felt her daughter’s junior high school in Calgary was overzealous about student dress, she wondered if Toronto’s new rules might be too lax. While students’ groin, buttocks and nipples must be covered, the new dress code allows for garb that exposes shoulders, abdomens, midriffs, neck lines, cleavage, thighs and hips. Such rules, Ms. Cook imagined, could provoke some serious teenage testing of limits.
“I really hope,” Ms. Cook laughed, “that students go ‘Woo hoo!’ I’m wearing pasties and little tiny boy shorts to school!’ ”
The TDSB seems to tackle such parental concerns directly in its FAQ: “Does this mean that students could just wear pasties and boxers or a string bikini and thong to school?” it reads. The answer is no, according to the board, since the policy states undergarments and swimwear can’t be worn as outerwear.
Some students may indeed push the limits of propriety as the new dress code rolls out this fall in the city, said Lauren Bialystok, associate professor in social-justice education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto. But for Prof. Bialystok, the more important question is this: “How do we create a culture in which what people wear is not misinterpreted as license to objectify, sexually harass or shame them – and rather, just one of many forms of self-expression?”
The architects of the new policies stand particularly firm on the issue of female students’ clothing and male “distraction.” Said Toronto’s Mr. Jeffers, “The fundamental way that you change sexual harassment and unhealthy relationships in schools is through education, not through over-policing students’ bodies.”
In Victoria and Edmonton, where student-centred dress codes have been in place for a year, school administrators consider the move a success. The number of student and parent complaints about unfair dress coding has dropped, and some teachers have told school trustees they’re happy not to serve as the clothing police anymore. “A year out, I’m very happy to report that the sky has not fallen,” Victoria’s Ms. Watters said. “There’s been a lot of alarmist stuff: ‘What if someone is wearing pasties, or naked?’ None of that has happened.”
In the spring of 2018, the Greater Victoria board replaced its patchwork of dress codes at individual schools with a new, centralized policy. Across 47 schools, the district’s 20,000 students can now wear clothing of their choice, as long as it’s safe for the activities planned that day and doesn’t feature offensive messaging or promote hatred or drugs. Staff are to avoid embarrassing students or disrupting their learning time over dress-code violations, which are to be treated as “minor.”
When she pushed to modernize her board’s dress codes, Edmonton Public School Board trustee Bridget Stirling looked to Victoria as a model. Edmonton’s new guidelines, passed in May, 2018, set out that dress codes at the board’s 213 schools will no longer be gender specific and will instead “respect the diversity of the student population” of approximately 105,000. The focus will now be on “fostering a sense of belonging and a positive sense of self,” albeit within “a productive and safe learning environment.”
“This is the first year since I was elected that I haven’t had families call me with concerns about their child being dress coded,” Ms. Stirling said.
The trustee said several teachers have approached her, relieved they don’t have to perform the “uncomfortable” task of calling students out for their hoodies or midriff-baring tops. “They’re no longer in this situation of having to enforce something they maybe think isn’t actually very harmful to the students’ learning,” Ms. Stirling said.
Students have applauded the modernization of dress codes. Amin Ali, 18, argued that the updates are especially important for a school population as diverse as the Toronto District School Board’s. “Our schools look fundamentally different than they did 30, 40 years ago. You cannot apply yesterday’s solutions to today’s population,” said Mr. Ali, who graduated from Scarborough, Ont.’s Sir John A. MacDonald Collegiate Institute in the fall. “For me,” Mr. Ali said, “this dress code represents that one of the pillars of institutional discrimination – particularly against women – is finally coming down.”
Ms. Dennie, the cape-wearer in Calgary, envied students in Toronto, Edmonton and Victoria for their re-envisioned dress codes. Not having to wonder if the teacher was going to call her out for her clothing choices would make it a lot easier for her to focus on the lesson, Ms. Dennie explained. “I think it’s genius,” the teen said.
By and large, students seem thrilled. “The negative reaction has only been from adults,” Mr. Jeffers said.
For parents unhappy with the new wave of student-first dress codes, there is a sense that children have become the adult arbiters where maybe they shouldn’t be.
“I don’t believe that children or even teenagers have the sophistication or the mental capacity to decide what they should be wearing at school,” Newmarket’s Ms. Di Muccio said. “To let the kids decide is ludicrous.”
Architects of the new dress codes are vehement that, ultimately, decisions about what to wear are not up to children alone. Day-to-day discussions about clothing – and the values attached to that clothing – ought to happen at home, with families getting final veto power over what children wear out in the world, policy-makers say.
“This isn’t a contest between student choice and parent choice,” Edmonton’s Ms. Stirling said. “This is really about putting it back into the decision-making of the family around what they think is appropriate.”
Chilliwack’s Ms. Reichelt suggested the purchasing power of parents should not be underestimated in this debate. “My kids don’t have anything in their wardrobe that I don’t approve of because I buy all their clothes,” Ms. Reichelt said of her two teenage sons.
Ms. Reichelt continued: “I will absolutely defend families’ rights to dress their children modestly, if that’s what you believe in. … What this does is it doesn’t allow your personal morals to affect everyone else’s children.”
Toronto student Ms. Larrondo agreed that conversations about student appearance belong at home, not in front of the class. She said her mom has talked to both her and her older sister about their clothes, how they feel in those clothes and about context.
“What I think is really amazing about my parents is they ask, ‘Well, why do you want to wear it?’ ” Ms. Larrondo said. “That’s the way to go about it. Have a conversation with your kids about why they want to wear it – and try to come an understanding.”
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