Working on a New Dress Code in Your District?
Here are Some Questions To Consider

As you consider changing a school dress code, you must keep these points in mind.

How do teachers and administrators feel?

Since teachers and administrators will have to enforce any change in the dress code, it is important to get their input and "buy-in" to any substantial policy changes. It is important not to alienate the teaching and administrative staff, especially in districts where there has been conflict in the past. They may also have some wisdom to share, based on their experience with the existing dress code. If you choose to make changes that they do not endorse, you should have strong, clear reasons for doing so.

How do the parents feel?

Any substantial change in a dress code should be approved by the parents, as they will be part of the enforcement team.  In addition, they may have to shoulder the additional expense of a new wardrobe.  Parents should be asked not only about the idea of changes in general, they should also be asked for input once a particular policy is proposed.  In some districts, parents have been enraged when a uniform policy was passed without their input.  There have also been problems when, for example, an initial approved proposal was expanded to include shoes and coats without further parental input.  My Links to Other Districts page contains links to parent groups that have been formed to protest uniform policies in their school districts.

What about low-income families?

Any substantial change in the dress code could be a serious ongoing financial burden on low-income families.  You will need to be sure programs are in place to address these needs.  You will also need to consider a program to "hand down" outgrown clothing to other school students.  How many children in your district are eligible for the school lunch program?  This is a good place to start when deciding how many families may need assistance.

Do NOT assume that uniforms will be cheaper for low-income families.  Many low-income (and middle-income) families make extensive use of hand-me-downs, and may be paying very little, if anything, for their clothes currently.  Even when they purchase clothes, they may shop at thrift shops, where clothing items may cost only $1 to $3 for a shirt or pair of pants.  The cost of a uniform may be considerably more than they are used to paying for clothes, and a uniform can generally only be worn to school, so they will still have to purchase regular clothes.  Uniforms are only cheaper for families that typically spend more than the cost of a uniform on an outfit for their child.

Voluntary vs. Mandatory

In the US, children have a right to a free, appropriate public education.  This right cannot depend on whether the student chooses to wear a uniform.  Unless there are clear disciplinary or safety problems in the schools (which may or may not be the situation in your district), the federal government advises that uniform-style dress codes must be optional or include an opt-out clause.  In some districts, students whose parents "opt out" attend another school that does not have a uniform policy.  If your district has only one middle school and one high school, these students would have to attend other schools at district expense, or be given homebound instruction.  A cheaper alternative would be to make the uniform optional.

Enforcement

Before making substantial changes to the dress code, you need to consider how the rules will be enforced.  In other districts, suspensions have dramatically increased when "uniform-style" dress codes were implemented, resulting in a serious loss of instructional time.  There have also been problems with inconsistent enforcement.  In some cases, students have missed school when they have not been able to meet the dress code requirements.  In other situations, school administrators have crossed the bounds of appropriate touching in the process of enforcing the dress code.  These issues must be considered when an enforcement policy is considered.  Check out my Results & Outcomes page for examples of enforcement out of proportion with the "crime". .

Creative Compliance

If substantial changes to the dress code are made, you should expect some protest through "creative compliance".  The more restrictive the dress code, the more likely students will try to find loopholes in it.  Any restrictive dress code will have to be extremely detailed to enable teachers and administrators to effectively enforce the spirit of the code.  Teachers and administrators will also need training to be sure that enforcement falls within the student's legal rights, especially their right to free speech as delineated in Tinker vs. Des Moines.  Check out my Creative Compliance page for examples.

Legal Challenges

There have been legal challenges in the past regarding restrictive dress codes, and many of the new wave of uniform policies are being challenged in the courts.  Before substantially changing your dress code, it is important for you to read Tinker vs. Des Moines (a Supreme Court case upholding student's rights to free speech within the school) and other cases to fully understand what a dress code can and cannot restrict.  There are several excellent articles and case studies on my Legal Issues page.

Religious Concerns

Many religions include guidelines on dress.  Any dress code should allow students to follow their religion's requirements or traditions as to dress.  Typical examples include headgear such as turbans, yarmulkes, veils, or head scarves, the wearing of religious symbols such as a cross or star of David, and having one's arms and/or legs covered.  Care should be taken not to restrict other expressions of religion, such as WWJD jewelry.  See my Religion and Culture page to look at various issues that have come up across the country.

Special Needs

When considering narrowing dress code requirements, some thought should be given to special needs students.  Special clothing may be required for students with limited use of their hands, or those in wheel chairs.  Some students require special shoes.  Any program designed to reimburse clothing expenses for low-income students will probably have to cover such items, under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In addition, it is characteristic of some autistic children to be especially sensitive to their clothing.  Some leeway must be allowed these children to choose dress that does not unduly bother them.

Availability

Some districts have had difficulty with availability of clothing that fits their dress code.  In some cases, vendors have not been able to meet the demand for school uniforms.  Even in the case of a more flexible "uniform-style" policy, some thought should be given to availability if specific styles are mandated.  For example, one district mandated "plain navy blue coats", then found it was not possible for everyone to find one.  Another hard-to-find example would be "sneakers without logos".  In addition, some children are very difficult to fit, especially in the case of shoes.  You should be careful to be sure that parents can comply with any guidelines that are enacted.

Clear Style Guidelines

In the case of a single uniform supplier, parents have strictly limited choices about style.  In the case of a more open "uniform-style" policy, however, there will be some leeway as to which styles are acceptable.  Other districts have experienced problems when parents have purchased clothing that appeared to fit the guidelines, only to have their children disciplined for wearing it.  Clear guidelines will have to specify fabric content and weave (twill, knit,etc.), styles (elastic waist, skirt length and cut, number of pockets, etc.) and so on to avoid problems.


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