Black girls are most likely to get sent to the school office — or home — for violating dress codes, making a case that implicit bias is rooted within these school policies.
This maybe-not-too-startling finding comes from a project of the National Women’s Law Center, which is a two-year, student-led report looking at dress codes in 29 Washington, D.C., schools.
The report ought to concern local school leaders because these same issues exist in Tulsa-area schools. Districts need to take a look at which students are being cited and consider how bias in policies or enforcement might play a role.
Last year, a report found black girls were 20.8 times more likely to be suspended from D.C.-area schools than white girls. A reason was discriminatory enforcement of minor infractions, like wearing a short skirt or head coverings, that escalated in punishments leading to girls missing classes.
Overall, the policies were geared toward girls: length of skirts, amount of makeup or nail polish, restrictions showing shoulders, limits on heels and sandals, mentions of clothing fit and bans on hair dye, hair wraps and leggings.
Often, these fashion trends are popular among girls and students who identify as LGBTQ. With hair wraps and coverings, these have more affect on students of color.
The findings prompted those schools to review policies for inherent racist and sexist biases.
A report issued on Wednesday updated changes made to those dress codes and took another look at the statistics.
Just like in the Tulsa-area schools, the D.C. schools have varying dress codes but some similarities exist. About 79% required a uniform, 59% regulated skirt and shorts length, 48% banned hair wraps, hats and head coverings and 21% banned tights and leggings.
Schools with a majority of black students had 1.7 times the number of dress code restrictions and suspend girls at 1.7 times the rate as other schools, the report found.
Public charter schools had more than twice the amount of restrictions and suspended girls at higher rates (14% compared to 10% at public schools).
School leaders took action based on the findings and complaints made by girls and their parents. Though, it wasn’t smooth sailing.
Students at one school staged a walkout after administrators dismissed a dress code task force without taking action. Leaders reconvened the group eventually to pass a revised dress code.
Administrators at another school cited students for wearing head wraps, calling them unprofessional or distracting, even though the policy didn’t say those were prohibited. Students organized a “head wrap clapback” arriving for school in different types of scarves, bandannas, wraps and do-rags.
That led to school leaders reconsidering those actions.
Overall, the discussions around dress codes have flourished in the area leading to deeper conversations about race and gender.
The Council of District Columbia passed a bill prohibiting out-of-school suspensions for minor infractions, including dress code violations. Several individual school- and community-wide forums were held around the subject.
The D.C. council introduced a resolution urging schools to end classroom removals for uniform and dress code violations and to consult with students and parents to develop equitable dress code policies. The measure is pending but has support of at least 10 out of 14 council members.
Tulsa-area schools are not immune to these issues, with many districts having the same bias problems in their policies.
There is a balance between freedom of expression and distraction, but it’s an ongoing discussion as trends change.
Tulsa Public Schools gradually introduced uniforms starting in magnet schools and in some north-side schools in the 1990s. In 2012, the board approved a district-wide uniform policy with schools able to choose styles and colors.
It has mixed reviews from parents, but I’m on the hate-it side. It is more expensive, items were not available in local stores and some students are not comfortable in the required clothing.
Enforcement can become more distracting than the actual clothing. Too many times I’ve seen kids waiting in offices for a parent to bring the right shade of shirt or different pants.
I’m still unsure why hoodies are banned.
At the heart of a dress code should be empowerment and purpose.
Why was a rule put into place? Is that reason still relevant? Does a policy affect one group more than another? Are there other options? How does this impact learning?
This doesn’t mean schools should have an anything-goes approach. It means using common sense and allow for an evolution. The report makes a good point:
“Dress codes should be created in conversation and collaboration with students. Not only is this approach more likely to produce more inclusive, culturally responsive policies, it’s also a way to build stronger relationships and social-emotional skills among the school community.”
Dress codes may not be a policy priority among adults, but they define the world by which students live and work. If it is a high priority for them, it needs to be a high priority for all of us.
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