Photo credit: Aluma Images / Photographer's Choice RF / Getty Images
School dress codes have long been in place to ensure kids today wear appropriate clothing. Those "kids today," however, can be pretty amazing and realize when a long-established dress code just isn't working anymore. The real news here isn't about a girl who wore a tuxedo or the Catholic high school that tried to stop her. It's about the students who rallied in her support and the school officials who listened.
Dress code required
Education.com reports an uptick in school violence, bullying, gang activity and clothing and accessory thefts. The countermove: more stringently enforced dress codes. Supporters of school dress codes have many good reasons they should be followed, starting with that they move student focus from fashion to learning with one swoop — or one rule.
Shannan Ball Younger writes the Tween Us blog on ChicagoNow, a site that explores the tween years and the challenges that come with parenting them because, as she says, the space between playing with trucks and driving them can be difficult for both kids and parents. She explains, "[Kids are] supposed to be learning and focused on what the teacher is saying, not what classmates are wearing. One positive of dress codes is they can minimize to some extent socioeconomic differences among students or even just the pressure to wear a certain brand of clothing. In some schools that have gang problems, dress codes can be one part of keeping students safe."
(Over-) enforcement problems
The problem with most rules, however, isn't that they're meant to be broken; it's that they shouldn't be enforced with broad strokes. Younger calls this "over-following." She says, "There are negatives to over-following dress codes. It becomes far less about what's appropriate when the enforcers observe only the rules and fail to look at the bigger picture. If the goal of the dress code is to ensure that students dress appropriately and respectfully, that was achieved here. [But] there are many ways to dress in a way that satisfy the dress code." This outlook plucks some dress code problems out of students' hands and gives them right back to the administrators, which is where I think over-enforcement belongs.
The times, as they say, are changing, and schools need to move along with them. Vikki Reich writes about the intersection of contemporary lesbian life, parenthood and pop culture on her personal blog, Up Popped a Fox. Reich explains, "When I was in high school I was on the debate team and girls were required to wear dresses to competition. I hated it but never thought to take on the rules. I think kids today seem to have more self-awareness than most of us did back in the days of old."
Reich is on to something here. Kids are more connected to a wider world via social media and are encouraged to reflect on who they really are rather than who they'd like to emulate. This level of self-awareness at a young age is unique to this generation, and it's fabulous, except when it means the rules in place can no longer meet the needs of the students they're meant to support.
Younger explains, "Strict enforcement ignores context. In the real world, there often aren't strict rules about what to wear and so conformity isn't a realistic expectation. The issue is more about being able to perceive and adapt to what's expected, and over-enforcement of dress codes doesn't promote that."
In the case of 18-year-old Jessica Urbina, her clothing was modest, appropriate, celebratory and, in fact, something she would have been encouraged to wear — if she was a boy. Urbina wore a stylish tuxedo in her senior photo but was told by school officials that her picture wouldn't appear in the class yearbook because the Archdiocese of San Francisco's rule is that girls have to wear dresses in their yearbook photos.
Urbina, a graduating senior, regularly wears traditionally male clothing and wore the same tux to her prom. Her classmates weren't surprised in the least that she opted to wear the tux in her portrait, but they sure did have something to say — and wear — when it was announced that her photo wouldn't appear in the yearbook.
Urbina's brother, Michael, started the Twitter campaign #JessicasTux. Many of her classmates wore ties to school and, using the hashtag, tweeted their own pictures of themselves wearing ties. Jessica's girlfriend, Katie Emanuel, was one of the tie-wearing students and said, "I support my girlfriend. I love my school and I want to make it as good as it can be for people like us."
The result was powerful. School officials not only apologized and allowed Urbina's photo to be in the yearbook as is but landed on the right side of policy and agreed that change is in order. In a public statement, the school president and principal wrote, "We agree with our students who showed solidarity with their classmate that the current policy regarding senior portraits is not adequate to meet the needs of our families or our mission. We will involve our students, families and Board in crafting the updated policy."
Urbina and her family responded, "You have all provided Jessica and our family with vast amounts of love, support and inspiration. Your heartfelt stories and words of encouragement, struggle and triumph have been sources of great comfort during this emotional time. To all of you, who showed the world the power of social media and passionate activism, we thank you!"
While I love a happy ending and think this win is phenomenal, it's important to note that the steps it took to get here — a student standing up for herself, activism by her peers and authentic listening by her administration — were all necessary. Leslie Lagerstrom is a proud mom of two children who writes to spread awareness about transgender children and their families on her blog, transparenthood. Lagerstrom explains, "I wish Jessica's photo hadn't been omitted in the first place, but I find it promising to see the school realize their mistake, apologize and try to rectify the situation. Stories like these fill me with hope because it shows that the stigma surrounding the LGBT community is slowly but surely lessening. We're optimistic that those who follow in the footsteps of people like Jessica and my son Sam will find the road easier to travel."
Leslie's son, Sam, is a transgender teenager with a passion for spreading awareness and who will be a freshman at Bates College in the fall. Sam says, "This situation reminds me of a time over a year after I had transitioned in which the yearbook still read 'Samantha.' As every other middle school kid did, upon receiving my yearbook, I immediately scanned the pages for my photo to see who I was next to, and where I landed on the page — I hoped it wasn’t on the crease yet again! But unfortunately, the first thing to catch my eye was the name: Samantha. I felt like I'd been stabbed in the back. I had transitioned over a year ago and was so proud of my very masculine picture, complete with a new short haircut, fake smile and my favorite red polo. I didn't understand how the meticulous yearbook edits, conveniently not misspelling or misprinting one damn word could leave such a feminine name next to my new appearance. It made me sad that my English teacher, the yearbook editor who knew me, could hand me my overpriced yearbook with a smile as she was simultaneously handing 1,200 students a copy of my past that I didn’t want distributed."
Both Lagerstroms believe that stories like Sam's and Jessica's need to be openly discussed; the dialogue they create and the activism they inspire is what leads to change. Leslie explains, "Stories like these need to be told because they sow the seeds of awareness, which in turn fosters acceptance."
Acceptance is the first step toward (necessary) change. This story does have a happy ending, not just for Urbina, but for future students as well. The school officially changed its dress code policy.
Lagerstrom says, "The grace shown by the family and the courage of the school to do right by this student will go a long way in opening hearts and minds... The school's response is helpful for all other students, who now have a positive example of how to treat people who don’t fit within the typical gender stereotypes, and that in our shared human experience, protecting an individuals humanity is more important than [rules] or agendas."
What do you think about school dress codes? Do they work? Is it time to revisit them?