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The Problem With Dress Codes in NJ

Are school dress codes in New Jersey sexist?


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I STOCKPHOTO/JTYLER (for illustrative purposes only)

There’s a rebellion brewing in NJ schools, and this time, it’s not about standardized testing or how much homework kids should be doing—it’s about school dress codes. Specifically, those that “sexualize” and unfairly target girls by focusing on what they’re wearing and how much skin they’re exposing. 

The conversation is happening on both a local and a national scale, and it’s teen girls (and their parents) who are leading the charge. Over the last year, we’ve witnessed the birth of student-led movements on social media with Twitter handles like #IAmMoreThanADistraction and #IAmNotMyDress in response to how dress codes targeting girls were handled at South Orange Middle School and Montclair High School, respectively. Students organized protests against policies mandating appropriate skirt and shorts lengths (using the “fingertip rule”—i.e. they should reach to the fingertips of the child’s extended arm). They, along with many parents, argued the dress codes and their enforcement “singled out girls” and shamed them into feeling embarrassed about their bodies. Protesters took to social media to accuse administrators of buying into “rape culture” that presumes male students can’t be responsible for their behavior when presented with “distracting clothing.” 

Luckily, school officials seem to be listening, in large part thanks to these proactive, empowered, indignant teenagers who are forcing schools to confront the question of whether dress codes discriminate on the basis of gender.

Dress Codes in New Jersey

Throughout the state, school dress codes vary dramatically. Many public schools do not enforce a dress code. Others mandate school uniforms—more common among parochial schools and public charter schools, though fully 19 percent of public school students in the U.S. wear them. In NJ, the Department of Education leaves it up to the individual school: “A board of education may adopt a dress code policy to require that students wear a school uniform if the policy is requested by the principal, staff, and parents of an individual school and...will enhance the school learning environment.” Any uniform policy established must provide assistance for low-income families to help cover the cost.

In the Vineland Public Schools, for instance, the local school board requires students to wear uniforms consisting of a red, black or white collared shirt without emblems; khaki or black pants for boys; and khaki and black skirts or slacks for girls. Penns Grove-Carneys Point School District forbids sandals, shirts without sleeves and also “revealing or distracting clothing, such as see-through blouses unless they are worn with an appropriate undergarment,” according to the student handbook. “Shirts and blouses may not be cut short, thus exposing the midriff.” Shorts and skirts “can be no shorter than two inches above the knee.” 

In Princeton Public Schools, clothing restrictions are tied to choices that “disrupt the educational process. Bare backs, spaghetti strap tops, exposed stomachs, short shorts, tank tops and short dresses/skirts are not appropriate clothing,” the policy says. “Apparel that is revealing, lewd, ragged, or that draws attention to an illegal substance, is among the items prohibited.”

But of course listing specifics is where it gets tricky. Things on the banned clothing list in Princeton are, for the most part, traditionally worn by girls. By just policing girls’ clothing, suddenly we’ve traveled from the non-controversial realm of appropriate clothes for school to issues of gender discrimination and, specifically, accusations of sexualizing girls through their clothing choices. And the devil, as always, is in the details. Where is the line between “revealing” and fashion-forward? Is that distinction the same for boys as for girls?  What’s the difference between a spaghetti strap and a permissible thin strap? If, on a hot day, a boy knots his T-shirt to expose his stomach, is he violating the dress code? And, most confoundingly, how does one define “disruptive” school dress?  Is the onus on the person staring at a tight tank top or the person wearing it to determine that? Is either one fair? 

Parents Taking Action Too

New Jersey mom and lawyer Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, whose then sixth-grade daughter was singled out for wearing too-short shorts and made to wear a “shirt of shame” in detention, embarked on a quest to form a coalition in her South Orange-Maplewood district that sought “a change of perspective and focus away from the culture of punishment, blame and shaming and toward one of equality and respect” when it comes to dress codes. 

“Our goal is to create a districtwide policy that ensures equal treatment of girls, including fair messaging to and expectations of boys,” Weiss- Wolf wrote. “We hope to promote a healthy dialogue among students and faculty about sexism and stereotypes.” Their efforts weren’t in vain. South Orange-Maplewood implemented a new dress code policy in September that softened the language of the previous one considerably. Instead of enforcing the old “fingertip rule,” which many believe unfairly singles out girls, the new code mandates that “underwear cannot be visible” and “clothing and undergarments should cover skin as appropriate for a school and professional setting.”

The Experts Weigh In

Some administrators believe limiting dress choice to khaki bottoms and collared shirts is a good thing—cutting back on bullying and harassment, since there’s no room for students to make fun of each other for what they’re wearing. Others cite potential reductions in clothing expenses for families who won’t have to worry about buying an expensive new back-to-school wardrobe for each child. But the mental health community’s reaction is mixed. 

A Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls formed by the American Psychological Association (APA) issued a 2007 report against the alarming trend, outlining its negative effects on girls’ healthy development and self-confidence. They recommended that schools help students “build nurturing connections with peers and enhance self-esteem based on young people’s abilities and character rather than on their appearance.” The APA is noncommittal when it comes to school dress codes, however, stopping short of taking a stand on either side of the issue.

Frank Belluscio, the deputy executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association, noted that while boards have the authority to set policies about attire, they also have the responsibility to first solicit community input.  Lucky for us, we have a group of empowered and articulate young women in our community dedicated to prodding NJ schools towards non-discriminatory dress codes. And it’s working.

Laura Waters is a NJ school board member and author of the blog NJ Left Behind. The views expressed here are her own.

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