Fall is here and the students are nestled safely back in your classroom. As teachers dutifully monitor the halls of their schools, some may suddenly become their conservative grandparents, shocked by the lack of clothing some students wear these days. Fashion has changed so rapidly from the days in school when parachute pants and Michael Jackson t-shirts were a principal’s main concern. Have you become the dress code police?
School dress code issues are not new to this generation and are not something to be taken lightly. Courts have weighed in on dress code debates for decades from t-shirt slogans to lengths of haircuts. Dress code issues were once often embedded war protests or doubled as political statement. However, today’s fashion generally rises and falls according to pop culture and reality TV stars. There is a magnitude of constitutional issues that exist within dress code policies. A policy that is too vague can cause confusion, while a policy that is too strict can cause conflict with the First Amendment.
This year alone several dress code issues have become hot news items throughout the country. The Washington Post reported a Maryland dress code dispute over whether or not tights qualify as pants. A Nebraska school put its students on notice that girls wearing sports bras and short shorts with painted handprints all over their bodies and boys wearing bras and short shorts would not be allowed at football games. A Florida school recently banned cheerleaders from wearing school-approved uniforms to class because their arms were exposed and their skirts did not meet the minimum length requirement.
Dress code debates are not going away, so what’s the basic rule for dealing with dress code issues? It lies in a U.S. Supreme Court freedom of speech case from the 1960s, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District that permitted students to wear black armbands to school as political protest. That case set forth a principle that is broadly interpreted to allow schools to regulate student dress that ‘materially or substantially’ disrupts the operation of a school. However, this is a fine balancing act when a student dresses in a particular fashion as a political statement. Take the case of the South Carolina student who wore 14 different t-shirts emblazoned with the Confederate flag and at times, criticism of the school administrator administering the dress code that banned the flag shirts. The shirts, arguably political or cultural, were also worn to a school with a history of racial strife, thus allowing the school to adopt a more stringent dress code to promote racial unity.
As an educator, consider how disruptive the latest fashion trend is to your school. Does it rise to the standard of being disruptive of the school environment? If so, take a stand and begin the discussion of how and why certain dress can interfere with learning. Use dress code infractions as teachable moments — encouraging students to express themselves in appropriate ways while also respecting the learning environment. It is your duty to be able to articulate how a vulgar t-shirt or style of dress actually interferes with learning. If it doesn’t, then maybe you’re a bit too sensitive to today’s fashions. Remember that you once probably longed to wear a popular (or unpopular) brand or style and that it probably really meant something to you when you did. It’s not different today – just shorter and probably very low cut and see-through. Seize the opportunity to be more than the dress code police and to be an educator set on protecting the learning environment.
Gretchen Oltman is an attorney in Nebraska. She wrote the book, Violence in Student Writing: A Guide for School Administrators, and specializes in making school law issues approachable to classroom teachers and administrators. She currently serves as a dissertation consultant and assistant professor at Creighton University. You can follow her twitter at @Dr_Oltman.