Hasana Alidu likes to dress for her mood. A student at North Valleys High School in Reno, Nev., Alidu loves to express herself through clothing, wearing yellow when she’s happy or black when she’s sad. But on a cool morning this past February, Alidu didn’t think much about the outfit she wore to school: an off-the-shoulder black top tucked into crimson-colored pants. She pulled her long afro curls neatly into a low ponytail. She certainly never imagined her clothes would result in two school police officers escorting her through the halls, as other students watched.
Her school district, the second largest in Nevada, had a clear dress code ban against exposed shoulders at the time. But Alidu says she wasn’t worried about the particular shirt she chose that day. Classmates wear similar clothing—and even more revealing outfits—all the time, she says, without any consequence. For Alidu, the trouble started during lunch when an administrator asked her to cover her shoulders. Alidu initially obliged by pulling up her sleeves. Later in the period, however, the sleeves had slipped back down. When the administrator again saw her with bare shoulders, she called the school officers to take Alidu to the office. As punishment, she received an in-school suspension, and her mother was called. The Washoe County School District did not confirm whether the suspension would be reflected on her record. “I think it’s ridiculous,” Alidu says. “I had to miss class for what I was wearing.” The dress code is unfair, she says. “Most guys wouldn’t even have to deal with that problem; most of the dress code is targeted toward girls.”
Of the 39 restrictions listed in the district’s 2018 handbook, at least half a dozen mentioned items more likely to be worn by female students. Among them: no low-cut necklines, exposed cleavage, or spaghetti straps; no halter tops, tank tops or tube tops; skirts and dresses must be at least mid-thigh in length. Since the incident, a revised policy published online lists 17 restrictions that do not specifically mention exposed shoulders.
Alidu’s experience mirrors that of girls around the country who believe they face disproportionate punishment when it comes to school dress codes. It’s true that boys can be punished for sagging pants or certain types of headwear, but many people feel that dress codes impact girls more than boys. In communities across the country, protests in recent years—both in person and on social media—have ignited a national discussion about dress codes and fairness.
For black girls like Alidu, the question isn’t just one of gender equity, but of racial disparity as well. Some dress code restrictions, such as prohibitions against certain types of hairstyles, unfairly target students of color, advocates argue. Beyond that, the wide discretion that teachers and administrators have in enforcing dress code policies can mean that minority students are singled out more often. That’s part of a larger pattern of disproportionate punishments given to students of color. According to a Government Accountability Office report released last year, black students accounted for 15.5 percent of all public school students in the 2013-2014 school year, but represented 39 percent of suspended students. Black girls were also eight times more likely to receive an out-of-school suspension than white girls.
Dress code violations are minor infractions that can nonetheless have a significant impact. Punishments can range from being forced to change clothes to suspension. In some cases, girls are forced to kneel on the floor to test if their skirts or dresses reach the ground. Missing class time can result in lifelong hurdles, says Monique Morris, a doctor of education who researches the effects of school discipline on black girls. Like boys, she says, “a girl needs to have the instruction time in order to be a high performer. When we take that away from her, she is at a higher risk of participating in underground economies that can lead to contact with the juvenile court or criminal legal system later in life.” Across the country, high school graduation rates are rising and prison incarceration rates are declining for black females overall. But they remain about three times more likely to be referred to juvenile court than white girls.
Education officials and administrators have started to address that disparity in recent years. Residents in California, Kentucky, New York, Texas and elsewhere are pushing to close the gaps between racial groups when it comes to school discipline. For individual schools, these efforts often include limiting punishments for dress code violations, and in some cases eliminating dress restrictions altogether.
Starting in the 1990s, American public schools began to adopt stricter regulations and zero tolerance policies aimed at reducing violence and crime. Inspired in part by the popular broken windows approach to policing, which aims to stave off larger crimes by cracking down on small offenses like graffiti and loitering, public schools got tougher on a host of infractions. Minor scuffles, profanity and insubordination became offenses punishable by detention or suspension. In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the Gun-Free Schools Act, which requires the expulsion of any student who brings a gun to school; many districts adopted other tough-on-crime strategies in the years that followed. The 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, which resulted in 13 deaths, marked another transformational moment. School safety became a paramount concern, and districts across the country tightened restrictions further.
In the push to protect students, schools also focused on their outer appearance. Advocates for school uniforms and dress codes believe in part that promoting a neat, professional look will minimize distraction and improve student achievement. “I think it takes away the power of gang affiliation, and as a teacher I know sometimes clothing can be distracting if a student is showing up in pajamas or something very suggestive, or pants that are sagging down so low it almost becomes a safety issue,” an Iowa public school teacher told the Associated Press in 2011. “I think it mitigates some of those concerns.”
Most research on school clothing focuses on uniforms, but studies examining both uniforms and dress codes show mixed results. While some research indicates they can promote better learning and behavior among students, others do not show any significant differences. Beth Freeburg, a professor with Saint Louis University who has studied this issue, says that despite some flaws with implementation she believes there are noteworthy benefits to dress codes. “It’s about physical as well as psychological safety,” Freeburg says. “What dress codes do is provide a standard for behavior.”
A paper Freeburg co-authored in 2006 determined that “dress code policies can contribute to effective self-regulation by diverting attention away from the materialistic values espoused by the media and advertising while focusing attention on maintaining an educational environment where learning is foremost.”
In terms of safety, today’s focus on students’ clothing extends beyond gang symbols, messages of hate speech or sexually suggestive language. In many cases it regulates whether boys can wear earrings or girls can show collarbones, and whether black girls can wear their natural curls. These strict standards have had notable consequences. Between 1973 and 2010 the number of secondary school students suspended or expelled in a single year increased 40 percent in the U.S., according to the Vera Institute of Justice. A large number of these punishments include “discretionary” suspensions, or suspensions that are not mandated by law. A landmark study of Texas seventh-graders found that only 3 percent of violations resulting in suspensions “were related to behavior for which state law mandates expulsion or removal.” That means 97 percent were determined at the discretion of school administrators.
Vague wording leaves many school rules open to interpretation, says Adrienne Dixson, a professor of education policy at the University of Illinois. “These policies appear to be race-neutral, but the enforcement tends to impact more black and brown students,” she says. “How can you say it’s neutral when schools with the most restrictive policies have predominantly black and brown students?” Among those criticized for harsh restrictions are charter schools, which have come under scrutiny for discipline practices and strict uniform requirements.
Much of the research directly linking dress codes with discipline rates is only anecdotal. Federal suspension data does not break out violations related to dress code policies. In many cases, such punishments may not even be recorded as official disciplinary actions: They often result in detention or in sending the student home informally. But examinations of school dress codes underscore a connection to discipline. A 2018 study by the National Women’s Law Center analyzed policies in Washington, D.C., public schools and their effects on black girls. One school mentioned in the report is Achievement Preparatory Academy, a charter located in Southeast D.C. Achievement’s policy details strict uniform and other grooming requirements, including “100%” solid black dress shoes, in addition to matching socks that are solid in color and don’t have patterns or logos. “Dyed hair or a hairstyle that serves as a distraction—as determined in the sole discretion of the school—is not permitted,” reads the academy’s 2017-2018 student handbook. “Scholars who are out of dress code are NOT allowed to attend their classes.”
In fact, the Women’s Law Center study found that 74 percent of D.C. public high schools with publicly accessible dress codes authorize disciplinary action that can lead to missed class or school. “If you break the dress code, the school will say ‘You gotta go to the office,’ or, ‘Oh, you gotta go home,’” according to one 13-year-old girl interviewed by researchers. “I have to catch two buses and get up at 6:00 in the morning just to get to school on time. They almost made me go all the way back home, just to change my uniform pants, because my uniform pants were dirty.”
That kind of response is not unique to D.C. A black student battling brain cancer was reportedly asked by McKinney High School in Texas to remove her wig last year because of the dress code. Students at Gibbs High School in Florida protested in 2016 for the right to wear African head scarves. In Kentucky that same year, state Rep. Attica Scott decried a new policy at her daughter’s Louisville high school that banned “hairstyles that are extreme, distracting or attention-getting.” That included dreadlocks, cornrows and twists. Scott and her daughter Ashanti, who was 15 at the time, both wear natural hairstyles free of chemical straightening products. The school initially defended the measure, but after Scott and other community members continued to speak out, administrators reversed the hair policy. “I know that there’s a lot of work to be done, and I also know that work is possible,” Scott says today. “I’ve seen where students have gotten dress code policies changed, and how my daughter’s experience became an inspiration for other young people.”
For Deanna and Mya Cook, wearing their hair in braids was about more than looking fashionable; it was about learning to accept their naturally curly hair texture. The twins, who attended Mystic Valley Regional Charter School just outside Boston, are African-American and were adopted at age 3 by white parents. The girls spent years straightening their hair with chemicals, but in their sophomore year of high school, they opted for something new. During spring break in 2017, the Cook girls had their hair braided with extensions, a common style for many black women. The girls’ school, however, prohibited hair extensions. When Deanna and Mya refused to remove their braids, consequences followed. They were threatened with suspension and expulsion, they say. Deanna was also removed from the track team and Mya was taken off the softball team. “I just didn’t understand or know what to do. It didn’t make sense to me that I was getting punished for having braids,” says Mya. The Cooks’ story gained national media attention, and their parents consulted with legal groups including Lawyers for Civil Rights, the NAACP and the ACLU. Ultimately, the Massachusetts attorney general condemned the rules as discriminatory, and Mystic Valley changed its policy.
Prompted by cases like Mya and Deanna’s, Ashanti Scott’s in Kentucky, and Hasana Alidu’s in Nevada, dozens of districts across the country have revisited their handbooks in recent years and adopted more lenient regulations. One group that has been leading that effort is the Oregon chapter of the National Organization for Women, which drafted a model dress code in 2016. The code allows ripped jeans, pajamas, midriff-baring shirts and strapless tops, among other things. It still bans hateful, pornographic or violent images and language. A number of schools nationwide have implemented that model code, including Evanston Township High School in Illinois, which adopted new rules in 2017 after hundreds of students protested the old regulations. “Our students were very clear and astute in their analysis of why students were being sent to the dean’s office for what they were wearing. It was both a racial and gendered concern,” says Marcus Campbell, assistant superintendent of Evanston Township. “Nothing has changed about the learning environment, and we have far fewer kids missing class because of violations.”
Other anti-discrimination efforts have focused specifically on hair policies for black people. Earlier this year, the New York City Commission on Human Rights issued legal guidelines protecting people from hair discrimination in work, housing, public accommodations and school. In June, California became the first to ban discrimination based on hair statewide. The state of New York soon followed in July by enacting its own hair discrimination law. Elsewhere, some schools are reexamining the way they discipline students, especially regarding subjective and discretionary policies like dress codes. In recent years Minneapolis has become a microcosm of the national conversation.
In 2014, Minneapolis Public Schools reached a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights after it launched a probe into the district’s discipline practices. This agreement came as the superintendent moved to require that her office review all suspensions of students of color. The change helped to lower suspension rates, but racial disparities persisted. Moreover, some teachers are pushing to give faculty more control over suspension decisions, with claims that the limitations inhibit their ability to stop disruptive or aggressive behavior.
The dress code debate will continue to play out during a time when educators, students and parents are increasingly concerned about safety. As some districts become more open, others have doubled down on strict standards—even promoting dress codes for parents. For more lenient schools, they say their policies can also help improve students’ well-being. “I think every administrator should be thinking critically about the messages they are sending,” says Campbell from Evanston Township. “Having a more lax dress code does not limit conversations about what is appropriate for students. I see it as something that should be explored with various communities and stakeholders.”