Is It Time to Rethink the Dress Code?

The Union gathers feedback every year to determine what issues are most important to teachers.  This information is shared with administration and sometimes used to determine the direction of contract negotiations.   Seven years ago, the classroom issues included class size, inconsistent discipline, and tardies.    What was not on the list was issues with inappropriate dress.   After the 2007-2008 school year, teachers returned to a district that had instituted a very strict dress code. Some of the staff embraced the new policies, others were a little wary about how this new policy would affect the climate of the school.   At the high school, students were predictably resistant to the restrictions.


This 2007 biology class shows freshman wearing mostly t-shirts and hoodies as they dissect a frog.

It has now been seven years since we have had this policy and students are still resistant and the dress code policy is still in effect.    Administration and a committee of teachers is looking into making revisions to the policy.     I would personally like these revisions to be based on a thoughtful analysis of the policy and how it has changed the school’s culture and how it has (or has not) accomplished its original goals.

As a teacher at the high school who has been here since before the dress code change, I was one who originally had some reservations about its enactment.   I felt that adolescents sometimes needed an outlet to express their individuality, even it it was just a t-shirt with their favorite band.  As a scientist, I looked for peer-reviewed research that supported  claims that dress code policies influenced school climate in a positive way, and I found very little supporting arguments. At the time, the dress code change was promoted as a way to improve learning and behavior, and would improve test scores.  If that was the original goal, then we only need to look at the last 7 years of data to see if there has been any change in these  areas.

Anecdotal data comes from what I have observed in class and conversations I have had with other staff members in the workrooms.   Instead of creating a climate of teamwork and organization, most of us felt that the uniforms removed school spirit and a sense of community.  Fridays used to be a sea of black and red in the halls as kids wore school colors to promote our teams.  Those days were gone.   Teachers felt that they had been put into an adversarial position with students from the minute kids walked in the door.  Instead of saying “Good morning, how are you?”  we were saying “Where is your polo?  Are those yoga pants?”    This sets up teachers in an adversarial role with students which can make it even more difficult to foster a sense of classroom community and shared goals.  When schools are now moving to models of instruction that are less authoritarian (lecture based) and more project based, group instruction, the dress code conflict feels like a relic.

In addition to school culture changes, some teachers felt a lack of support from administration when students were sent to the office over dress code violations.  Students were given shirts from the closet or sent back with with a note saying their dress was okay.   Students quickly learned that if they slinked into class and sat down quickly, a teacher might not notice if they weren’t in dress code.  If they got sent to the office, some would pull a polo out of their locker or backpack and put it on.  It has become a game of cat and mouse that eats away instruction time, causes conflict between student and teacher, and even teacher and administrator.   For example, who decides if those are yoga pants or just skinny pants or black jeans.  Check out this photo of 4 students in the hallway.  Can you decide which of the students is dress code compliant?


Which pants are dress code compliant?

At the high school, the issue is a complicated one, partly because of how the high school operates and also the nature of the teenager.   Here are other observations related to the enforcement of the uniform policy at the high school.

1)  Students do not have a place to store their coats, so in the winter they wear hoodies which cover the polos.  Teachers would need to do a polo check every hour to ensure that they were wearing polos underneath hoodies and sweatshirts.

2)  Students must go outside to get to the gym and the cafeteria, they are usually wearing coats and hoodies in the halls, making it difficult to enforce the policy from hallway monitoring.

3)  Students change clothes for P.E., they often use this opportunity to switch out their shirts and pants, and teachers later in the day aren’t as vigorous about checking for dress code violations.

4)  Students are sometimes out of dress code for sanctioned events, such as Job Shadow, Field Trips, and sports.

5)  Style of pants has changed over the years, many tapered versions of pants are indistinguishable from yoga  pants, sweat pants and black jeans.  Heavier students will often wear Lycra (stretch) pants because that is how they are most comfortable.  Teachers may feel uncomfortable with humiliating students over their pants.

6) Many students don’t have access to laundry, and currently there aren’t any rules in place for dealing with stained, dirty, and even odorous shirts that haven’t been washed for weeks.  (Some kids only have one shirt.)

The enforcement issues have resulted in some very inconsistent discipline in classrooms and from the office, a situation that frustrates everyone.   For the vast majority of teachers, they just want kids to be in their class when the bell rings so they can start their lesson.   Draconian policies where we have students stand up so we can examine their pants and shirts has very little education value and promotes conflict between student and teacher.  In 2007, we may have had some problems with inappropriate dress, but it did not dominate our day to day activities like it does now.

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  1. Admin May 31, 2015
    • Cindy Mefford August 14, 2015
      • Admin August 14, 2015
        • Emma October 2, 2015
  2. Shelby October 2, 2015
  3. Patrick Martin October 2, 2015
  4. Taylor October 2, 2015
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