By Teagan Fair | United States
Although dress codes can differ throughout schools in America, the general rules are similar. Regardless of place on the political spectrum, many people respect the right to free expression in schoolwear. This all started in 1969, when the Supreme Court decided that schools could enforce their own dress codes, but only if a student’s clothing was disruptive to the learning environment. The landmark case occurred after students in Iowa wore black armbands to protest the Vietnam War.
However, there are many rules throughout American dress codes that are simply foolish, restrictive or even discriminatory. This includes rules regarding showing one’s collarbone, shoulders or midriff, rules regarding ‘gang-related clothing,’ and rules regarding political or social statements. For all three of these, schools often claim that the garb is disruptive. In many cases, though, this is simply untrue.
Unequal Censorship of Body Parts
One common type of censorship deals with the showing of different body parts, commonly the shoulders, collarbones or midriff. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), public school dress codes cannot have rules that enforce sex stereotypes. Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause both assert this.
In favor of the restriction, a number of people make the argument of sexual arousal. However, this is a major stereotype and does not equally take into account the desires and needs of every student. There is also no guarantee that it will be in any way disruptive. Even if a student’s clothing distracts another student, this is an individual problem. Isolated incidents do not justify an infringement upon the rights of others. This is especially true when there is not a typical disruption of class.
Moving on to rules regarding ‘gang-related clothing,’ students at Southern Illinois University found that gang-related headwear was the number one target of dress codes and uniform requirements. A 2006 review of policy cited revealed 89% of the more than 80 school policies had to do with this.
Many schools nationwide have created bans on a variety of clothing they consider to be possibly gang-affiliated. This often includes bandanas or handkerchiefs, hats, certain brands, logos or emblems, black trench coats. In extreme cases, it even relates to wearing certain colors too much or at all. This is wrong on a number of grounds.
For one, prohibiting what some think is gang-affiliated only gives the prohibited items more power. If people learn to fear these kinds of things, the objects gain power. Much like a curse, it can also make it ‘edgy’ or ‘rebellious’ to wear these items. When many students seek the admiration of going against the grain, a blatant ban is counterintuitive.
A Transformation of Attire
Moreover, items like hats and bandanas are usually everyday items. Baseball caps, for one, are still a prominent piece of clothing in American society. Yet, many schools nonetheless associate with gangs, even though gangs are only a small minority of those who wear caps.
As for emblems, an article at The Atlantic wrote about several instances of ridiculous prohibitions:
“We weren’t allowed to wear any Dickies-brand clothing or backpacks,” writes one reader who attended a Georgia public school in the early 2000s. “They were considered a ‘gang symbol’.” Another reader: “Because one of the gangs had adopted Mickey Mouse as one of its symbols, we were not allowed to wear anything with Mickey Mouse on it.”
Many schools across the nation have also prohibited black trenchcoats, some particularly after the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999. Before the shooting, the shooters would often wear the coats around the school. One actually wore one during the shooting, which sparked controversy. A clique within the school called themselves the Trench Coat Mafia and frequently wore the coats. As a result, some people blamed them for the massacre. However, Dave Cullen, author of the book ‘Columbine’, reporting at Salon, says differently:
“They were never part of the Trench Coat Mafia…As investigators get closer to producing an official report about the Columbine High School massacre, it is already clear that much of what was reported last spring about the motives and methods of killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold was untrue.”
She’s Got the Rhythm, but Not Blue
The next example goes beyond the inadequacies of prohibiting various types of garments. Across the country, some schools actually ban, both partially and fully, entire colors. In some schools nationwide, showing excessive amounts of ‘gang-related colors’, usually blue or red, is against the rules. Even going beyond the fact that color itself is subjective, and everyone sees it differently, this is still ridiculous. When a color is evil, society has slipped into fear. An article in the Modesto Bee excellently explains how schools have gone as far as to ban insignificant pieces of apparel, such as shoelaces and belts, bearing the colors of red or blue:
“The two most common street gangs in the region, the Norteños and Sureños, claim the colors red and blue, spoiling the popular hues for the majority of Modesto high school students who have nothing to do with gangs. Red or blue shoelaces, as well as belts of the same color, are banned across the Modesto City Schools district, and every high school has some kind of limitations related to the colors on other articles of clothing.”
Of course, political censorship in schools is a widespread flaw in American dress code. As I related in the first paragraph, in 1969, students in Iowa had protested against the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands. This resulted in the case known as Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent School District. Even today, it serves as an excellent outline of the rights of students in public schools. Or, as this article would put it:
“All dress code policies must meet the standard set in the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the 1969 case Tinker v. Des Moines, which allows students free expression as long as it does not create a “material or substantial disruption.” Of course, it can be very difficult to determine precisely what constitutes a material or substantial disruption. Judges usually side with administrators if a student’s clothing sends a violent or discriminatory message or if it advocates drug use. In contrast, if the clothing has a clear political message, the decision usually goes the other way. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) often argues on behalf of students in these cases.”
In the Tinker vs. Des Moines case, the armbands were not disruptive, so the students could wear them. Thus, it is not only immoral to censor particular opinions and expressions; the law also prohibits it, barring clear disruption of the educational process. Of course, many administrators can nonetheless claim, at their discretion, that things they disagree with are disruptive.
Taking Action for New Dress Codes
Without a doubt, dress codes in American public schools leave a lot to desire. They need widespread reform in order to improve morality and frankly, common sense. However, the only way to accomplish this is to take action and advocate this message. Desiring change, an American student should resist unjust and often illicit restrictions on freedom of expression. Do not give in to dress code restrictions, but rather, get schools to give in to you. By modifying dress codes so that they protect freedom of expression, we can keep both our schools and minds free.
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