Monday, April 15, 2019

A New Code

At long last, there may be a better dress code in the Howard County Schools.

I hope.

Here is a link to the proposed new policy.

A lot of good people from a variety of community constituencies worked on this, and I, for one, am grateful.

From the response that this information got on Facebook, not everyone shares my positive outlook. The thread on this topic took up 25 pages, more or less. I had it in mind to go through with a highlighter and color code the use of certain key words, counting their use, and looking at how this differed by gender. But then real life intervened.

After reading and rereading the comments certain things about the objections stuck out. Most were sexual in nature, and most (overwhelmingly) were aimed at young women. Words like:

Spaghetti straps
Bra straps

And these words were tied up in two larger concepts: that the clothing itself was innately sexual and would distract male students which would cause classroom disruption. Or that the wearers clearly had a sexual intent and chose clothing specifically to disrupt.

There was a whole lot of blame going on. And there seemed to be a notion that we all “just knew” that certain things were nasty and should be censured. And the nastiness always, always had to do with girls. One particular kind of shirt was labeled unacceptable because a boy might pull it up. This was deemed to be the girls’ responsibility to prevent.

(Insert eye roll here.)

As to the boys, it was:

Hoodies (and repeat)

Rather than the objection being sexual, the language was around safety and compliance with expected norms. At times the language seems to wander into “those dangerous kids, you know?” And, I repeat, any comments about male attire was never, never sexual in nature.

Essentially: girls need to cover up to be compliant whereas boys need to take something off. Alrighty, then.

My takeaway from the responses I read is as follows:

This new dress code is an attempt to move away from years of uneven, unfair enforcement which targeted girls most of all, curvy or heavier girls and girls of color bearing the brunt. Male students of color have been more likely to have had their clothing choices interpreted as dangerous and non- compliant.

In short, the enforcement of the hcpss dress code has been both racist and sexist. This interferes with students’ rights to get an education and this must stop.

The other thing that I just can’t shake is that the objections I saw are basically being made by people who want to set the rules for other people’s children. As a parent, you set the rules in your own home about what your child can leave the house wearing. So, those who said spaghetti strap tops are
unacceptable were really saying, “for other people’s kids.” Because certainly they’re not allowing their own daughter to wear them, right?  For example, I had no difficulty telling my daughters that they couldn’t wear certain outrageously fashionable shoes to school because I was convinced that they would break their ankles. It wasn’t in the dress code, it was my judgement call as a parent.

I think we should be very careful when opining on how “those girls” just want to make a spectacle of themselves or “those boys” wearing hoodies are probably up to no good. It is these kinds of judgements that lead to all kinds of hurtful stereotyping and blaming. I wish we could agree that the foremost goal should be that the clothing is comfortable, appropriate for the weather, and suitable for the activities that our kids are doing in school. And that the aspect of clothing which pertains to self- expression is acceptable and - - dare I say it? - - welcome.

After that, perhaps we can begin to look at how young people learn to make clothing choices as steps on a developmental continuum, one that is necessary for growing into their independent, adult selves. Being teenagers, they will sometimes make mistakes, push boundaries, and, to be blunt, do stupid-ass things along the way. They need guidance. Not censure. Respect. Not shaming.

I should note that not everyone opposes the new dress code. I was heartened to see other parents who
understood and articulated the importance of making our policy more just and humane.

Once the new policy goes into effect, the school system needs to provide admin, faculty, and staff the kind of training necessary to ensure its success. They will need guidance and support, too.

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