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Students and politicians are calling for an end to high-school dress codes after dozens of girls at a public Catholic school in Ottawa were singled out during an enforcement blitz that they say left them humiliated.

Students at École secondaire catholique Béatrice-Desloges said staff went classroom to classroom on a hot day last week to check whether shorts and skirts were long enough to meet the dress code requirements. Roughly 50 girls were sent to the principal’s office, where they were told to go home and change, or sift through the lost-and-found items for different clothes.

About 400 students protested outside the school on Friday, calling for changes to the dress code, and at one point Ottawa police officers were called in.

The Conseil des écoles catholiques du Centre-Est, or CECCE, dress code states that shorts and skirts must be of “an appropriate length” (mid-thigh) and that the underwear must not show, among other rules.

On Saturday, the board apologized to students and families for the method of enforcement, which targeted mostly girls – they were told to bend their knees upward to check whether their clothes were long enough – and promised to review its dress code policy.

“All students must be treated with dignity and respect. No student should be subjected to such a check on their clothing, let alone be questioned in front of their peers,” read a statement from Marc Bertrand, the board’s director of education.

Ottawa Councillor Catherine Kitts said she was taken aback by the incident, and noted it was hard to see how dress codes could exist without discriminating against girls, in particular.

“When it comes to a dress code at schools, there is always going to be an element of subjectivity that ultimately will unfairly target young women and girls,” Ms. Kitts said.

“Our message to our youth should not be that what they’re wearing is of greater concern than what they’re learning.”

Cloe Dumoulin, a 15-year-old student at the school, said she was told to zip up her top further because her tank top she was wearing made her chest distracting.

“They told me to cover up because I have a bigger chest area. … They claimed that it’s distracting to boys,” she said.

Ms. Kitts also said she was in touch with the Ottawa police chief and called for a review of their use of force while policing the student protest. A student from another school was arrested for trespassing, but was later released without charges or a ticket.

Farrah Khan, manager of Consent Comes First, an organization that supports victims of sexual assault at Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly known as Ryerson University), said dress code enforcement blitzes and subsequent protests take place every year when the weather gets hotter. She argued for them to be abolished.

“This is not a new issue, people have been calling out how draconian these dress codes are and how often they’re used to shame, blame and police young women’s bodies,” Ms. Khan said, adding that Black, Indigenous and transgender people are also disproportionately affected by dress codes.

“It feeds into rape culture – the idea that as a young woman, it’s your responsibility to protect yourself and take on the shame.”

CECCE superintendent Jason Dupuis said he’ll be at the school on Monday to meet with students, who are vowing to stage more protests if the school doesn’t change the dress code.

“It’s a question about finding this middle ground where students can feel like we can go to school without any sense of wondering whether what they’re wearing is okay,” Mr. Dupuis said.

Hailey Forster, a 15-year-old student who was made to change clothes last week, said it was upsetting that girls were unfairly targeted by the current rules.

“Some guys wear short shorts as well, it’s not just girls. Some guys wear muscle shirts and when guys show their shoulders it’s okay but not for the girls,” she said. “I just want equality.”

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