Do we need school dress codes?

The dress code debate seems to come around each year with the warm weather. What’s it really about?

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“The Board of Education is committed to fostering safe and caring schools that promote mutual respect, cooperation and social responsibility and support optimal learning. Our policies promote the creation and maintenance of safe, inclusive, equitable, welcoming and nurturing school environments,” it states in its introduction. It doesn’t mention clothing.

Each VSB school also has its own student code of conduct and many include the phrase “student behaviour, dress and decorum shall be in accordance with generally accepted community standards and appropriate for the educational environment. “

That’s as specific as it needs to get, in my opinion and experience and while “generally accepted community standards” leaves a big, grey area wide open to debate, it enables schools to respond in a thoughtful way specific to each situation and student if there are concerns about what a student is wearing to school.

After all, schools are about learning and helping students becoming critical, independent and self-respecting thinkers. When I see uniforms or strict dress codes, I see conformity and obedience and rules made by those with power imposed on those with less power.

Student voice required

Whether it’s banning cell phones at school or bringing in dress codes, students need to be part of the dialogue, or, ideally, leading it.

In Vancouver, the district student council and student trustee are part of all policy conversations and provide invaluable insight and advice to the trustees. Any discussion about student conduct or rights must include student voices, in my opinion.

I hope students will be participating in the discussion in the Greater Victoria school district.

Bring critical thought to the conversation

I remember when girls had to wear dresses or skirts to Vancouver public schools. That changed around 1970 and it turns out student learning wasn’t affected by what we were wearing. 

Debate around appropriate student attire often tiptoes — or in some cases loudly stomps — around gender issues and tends to disproportionately focus on whether girls’ clothing is “modest” enough or “distracting.”

I’ve thought about this over the years as I raised a strong-willed daughter who forced me to confront my own assumptions and thinking about a whole lot of things.

When she was in grade one she really wanted to wear a halter top to school on a warm spring day. I struggled to explain why that wasn’t “appropriate” although a six-year-old in a halter top on a warm day seemed harmless and inoffensive to me, but there was a school rule about it at the time.

The more I tried to explain it, they more ridiculous I found my explanation. But I stuck to it. I later discovered she wore it anyway but just put a t-shirt over it until she was out of my sight. Clever kid.

As a teen she challenged me constantly, as teens do, with her clothing choices. I won’t get into details out of respect for her privacy, but she forced me to confront my own attitudes that were, I confess, far more sexist than I realized and had been formed by living in a culture that told women what to wear and shamed them for the “wrong” choices.

I realized that instead of worrying about what my daughter was wearing I needed to focus on making sure my son learned to respect women at all times, regardless of clothing choices. That’s the thing about kids — they teach you a lot.

Debate is not going away

I don’t expect the dress code debate to go away in my lifetime and there will still be those who think we should just force all students to wear uniforms because “it’s easier.” 

I hope those debates continue to be as thoughtful as the comments under Nohr’s Facebook post and that participants approach them with respect for students and their right to diversity and self-expression. If you want to wear a uniform, then go ahead, wear one. Just don’t make another student do it to make you more comfortable. If you find someone’s clothing distracting, look somewhere else.

General codes of conduct enable truly offensive clothing choices — shirts with hate slogans, promotion of violence or illegal behavior etc. — that make others feel unsafe or unwelcome to be dealt with thoughtfully with appropriate intervention.

I hope that’s where the discussion in Victoria eventually lands — by sticking with general value statements and avoiding specific clothing rules.

In the meantime, get out there and enjoy the sun. The only thing I ask you to wear is sunscreen. The rest is up to you.









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