Setting appropriate and consistent standards for dress codes in schools remains a challenge for district administrators and principals.  The recent news story about the student who shaved her head in solidarity with a child who was on chemotherapy has raised the question:  Where should schools set limits?

As fashions change, there is always something new which may trigger a reaction.  Many parents are concerned that dress code violations disproportionately affect girls.

In day to day clothing, leggings have become a popular target of school dress codes

Dress Codes in Schools

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Some schools have banned leggings outright. Others have set limits. Haven Middle School in Evanston, just north of Chicago, took what turned out to be a contentious stand: If you wear leggings, you need to have a shirt or skirt over them that reaches at least down to your fingertips.

Judges have tended to side with schools when safety is a concern. A federal court agreed with a school district in Morgan Hill, California, after some high school students were told not to wear American flag T-shirts on the Mexican holiday of Cinco de Mayo in 2010. The worry was that the shirts would incite conflict with the school’s many Hispanic students.

Dress Codes in Schools

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At Haven Middle School, there has been a lot of confusion. Just a few weeks ago, the school’s own website said leggings were banned, when apparently they were not, school officials now say.

Then there was the matter of yoga pants, which are tight like leggings, but flared at the bottom. Did the fingertip rule also apply to those types of pants, especially when no one could tell the difference if they were tucked into boots, which is also popular style among teens?

The discussions at school meetings have sometimes bordered on silly. But few disagree that there are serious issues at hand here – among them, whether girls are being shamed and unnecessarily embarrassed at a time when they’re already starting to feel more aware of their changing bodies.

Clearly frustrated with the debate, Haven Middle School teachers posted this statement on the school’s website to explain the reasoning behind the leggings policy: “We believe, through years of experience and professionalism, that it is essential to our school’s climate that we set a standard of expectation and decorum.”

They denied that they acted because leggings distract boys, as has been alleged by some parents.

“The notion that girls’ clothing affects the way boys learn is not, and never will be, our message,” the statement said.

However, parents who’ve attended school meetings, and students who dislike the policy, seem most troubled by an inconsistency in enforcement. They claim that some girls are “dress-coded” more than others, perhaps because they are more physically developed. They say, for example, that they have heard comments like, “If you were smaller, you could wear this and it would be fine.”

“I’ve also seen skinny, smaller girls walking around in leggings every week and never, ever getting caught for it,” says Kate Green, a seventh-grader at Haven who concedes that she probably fits that category herself. She’s had warnings, she said, but never more than that, when other girls have had to put their gym shorts over their outfits if they’re in dress code violation.

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Dress Codes in Schools

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