MVSD revisits complex issue of student attire

By Marcy Stamper

A school dress code is about a lot more than simply what a student wears to school, as was evident in a frank discussion among Liberty Bell High School students, staff and parents this week.

What people wear encompasses issues of personal identity, body image and cultural attitudes about sexuality, those involved in the conversation said.

About 10 high school students, four parents (some of elementary-age students) and three staff members gathered Monday evening (Sept. 19) to examine the issue of what students wear to school — and whether there should be any restrictions about it.

The Methow Valley School District hasn’t had a dress code since the 2014-15 school year. The district abandoned a formal dress code last year because an increasing number of lawsuits around the country underscored the fact that dress codes often disproportionately target female students, said Liberty Bell principal Deborah DeKalb.

Current school policy consists of a brief statement in the Family Handbook that says students “should come to school dressed appropriately,” but largely leaves the definition of “appropriate” to individual students and families. The paragraph states that any dress or grooming that interferes with the health or safety of a student or others is not appropriate.

Because some people felt the lack of specificity had been accompanied by an increase in attire that has made some at school uncomfortable, the district circulated a survey and convened a group of interested students, parents and faculty to revisit the topic, said DeKalb.

“The goal of this task force is to develop a community agreement that respects all participants,” said DeKalb in a notice inviting students and families to the meeting.

Students at Monday’s meeting said that just as the school doesn’t censor political or religious views — but instead teaches students to accept and navigate these differences — the same approach should be applied to the way students dress.

All the students at the meeting were girls, and many offered a thoughtful, complex analysis about issues of appearance, gender, sexuality and body image, both at school and in American culture at large. In many ways, the discussion was a stand-in for broader issues about different cultural standards and expectations for men and women and boys and girls.

When people are uncomfortable with a girl’s or woman’s attire, they are sexualizing the female body, said several of the students. “The root of the problem is objectification — it’s not how we dress, but how guys are perceiving it,” said one.

But a parent who said she sees kids wearing shorts so skimpy that “butt cheeks” are exposed voiced a simple request. “That’s all I want — for private parts to be covered,” she said.

“It’s not just about dress — it’s about setting boundaries,” said one parent, who said rules are necessary to keep kids safe.

Different interpretations

Others raised the question about what choice of attire says about a student’s sense of self-respect. “Wearing skimpier clothing doesn’t mean we don’t respect our bodies,” said one girl. A dress code implies that the school is more concerned about a girl’s body than her mind, she said.

Girls struggle with their body image more than boys do, in part because they may not be aware of the airbrushing used to create the ideal bodies they see in media or online, said one parent.

Students pointed out that the same outfit may be interpreted differently depending on the student’s body type. For example, a shirt with a plunging neckline could be deemed acceptable on one girl but considered excessively revealing on a girl on whom the outfit revealed cleavage.

One parent was opposed to any type of dress code, trusting that the Methow Valley is a safe, comfortable place for kids to experiment and figure out how to dress before they go off to college or jobs in the larger world.

Most acknowledged that, even with keen parent involvement, kids may change their outfit or adjust their clothing after leaving the house.

Attendees at the meeting recognized that older students serve as important role models for younger ones who have yet to develop the sophistication or experience to understand how they may be perceived. Several high school students said they dress more conservatively when they meet with their lunch buddies in younger grades.

Survey results

The survey, which drew responses from about 40 parents and another 40 students — out of a student body of 275 — asked if people supported a dress code and why. It also solicited opinions about what to include in a dress code how to create broad community agreement.

While 88 percent of parents supported a dress code, only 43 percent of students did. A majority of staff — 59 percent — also supported a dress code.

While the survey gave a glimpse into community opinions, as one parent pointed out, the number of responses was too small to be statistically meaningful.

Next steps

Even if there is a consensus about what to include in a dress code, enforcement remains tricky, said DeKalb. Teachers are uncomfortable — and have not always been consistent — in their approach to the issue, she said.

Any guidelines the school adopts will be the same for male and female students, said DeKalb. School officials  will not pull students out of classes or send them home to change, but would most likely contact a parent or guardian and allow them to handle it.

Small and large school districts around the country are grappling with similar issues, said DeKalb. A dress code policy from the Portland (Oregon) schools with basic guidelines for all students — such as requiring all students to wear a shirt with pants, a skirt or the equivalent; to cover all underwear; and to have opaque fabric covering breasts, genitals and buttocks — may serve as a starting point, she said.

DeKalb said she would next discuss the issue with staff members.