Today's News, Tomorrow's Lesson - September 23, 2014

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Jinnie Spiegler, Director of Curriculum, Anti-Defamation League

Over the years, school dress codes have attempted to resolve a wide range of issues in schools and have prompted different degrees of controversy. For example, in the late 1960s and 1970s, young men with long hair were sometimes physically attacked by their classmates and, as a result, many schools required boys to wear their hair cut to their ears or shorter. In the 1990s, there was a push for dress codes to prevent gang-related violence. In recent years, a desire to curb conflict over designer labels and create a more “professional” school environment resulted in dress codes and uniforms becoming more popular.

Last spring and early this fall, student dress codes made headlines because several groups of students—predominantly girls—began to question, and in some cases protest, school dress codes. Their messages traveled far and wide through social media and news articles. The young spokeswomen said that the dress codes unfairly target girls and transgender students; they send a message to girls that if they are harassed by boys, it is the girls’ fault; they feel judged by the dress codes; and that a different standard is applied to girls who are more physically developed than other girls.

One example is what happened at Haven Middle School in Evanston, Ill., where 500 students signed a petition opposing what they had been told was a full ban on leggings and yoga pants. Many girls wore yoga pants or leggings in defiance of the ban. “Not being able to wear leggings because it’s ‘too distracting for boys’ is giving us the impression we should be guilty for what guys do,” said Sophie Hasty, a seventh-grader at the school, “We just want to be comfortable!”

Like some other school policies, established school dress codes are subject to constitutional challenges in the courts. If students feel their school’s dress code policy violates their rights, they can challenge the policy. However, there is no guarantee that a court will overturn a formal school policy unless it violates students’ free speech rights or is discriminatory. Lower courts have generally sided with schools, and the Supreme Court has never taken a case on dress codes or school uniform policy.


1. How should schools resolve the discrepancy between student comfort and self-expression with the school’s need to create a safe and professional learning environment?

2. How should students and parents respond if they don’t agree with their school’s dress code?

3. Do dress codes unfairly target certain students? If so, how?