Some dress code policies create equity issues, report finds

While the adoption of school dress code policies is often citied as a means of addressing health and safety concerns, certain dress codes may create a less equitable and safe environment for some students, especially girls, Black students and LGBT youth, according to an Oct. 25 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Among its key recommendations, the GOA called on U.S. Department of Education to develop resources for schools on creating equitable dress code policies that reduce subjectivity and exclusionary discipline for violations.

“Common aspects of dress code policies — such as taking measurements of students’ bodies and clothing — may make school less safe for girls, in particular. Although Education offers resources on ways schools can support racial, cultural, and gender equity in general, and on school safety and climate, these resources do not include information or examples about dress codes,” according to the report. “Given the prevalence of dress codes in public schools and the negative impact poorly designed dress codes can have on students, Education has an opportunity to further its goal of promoting safe, supportive learning environments for all students by providing schools and districts with information on designing equitable and safe dress codes.”

A review of publicly available district dress code policies showed that about 92 percent of districts have a policy on student dress, with items typically worn by girls — skirts, tank tops and leggings — facing scrutiny more frequently than items typically worn by boys, such as muscle shirts. The GAO estimated about 90 percent of districts prohibit at least one item of clothing typically worn by girls, compared to 68 percent of districts restricting one type of typical boy clothing.

Additionally, while about 33 percent of predominantly white schools report enforcing a strict dress code, more than 80 percent of predominantly Black schools and almost 66 percent of predominantly Hispanic schools reported doing so.

According to the report, 59 percent of dress code policies contain rules about students’ hair, hairstyles and hair coverings, which disproportionately impact Black students — some included rules specific to natural, textured hair, such as prohibiting “excessive curls” or stating that “hair may be no deeper than two inches when measured from the scalp.”

Other policies fall heavily on students from other racial or cultural minority groups, according to the report. For instance, more than 80 percent of districts ban head coverings such as hats, hoodies, bandanas and scarves, but only one-third specify allowing religious exemptions, and a few include cultural or medical exemptions.

Disciplinary action

The GAO also reviewed 10 years of discipline data related to dress code violations and other documents and conducted interviews.

Schools that enforce strict dress codes were also found to be associated with higher rates of exclusionary discipline, according to the report. And while dress code violations were not found to often result directly in suspensions and expulsions, an estimated 44 percent of dress codes outlined “informal” removal policies, such as removing a student from class without documenting it as a suspension. Other common consequences for violated dress codes included requiring students to change into P.E. clothes, imposing detention and calling parents or guardians.

This is especially alarming, as about 93 percent of dress code policies use phrasing that’s open to interpretation with words such as “revealing” and “immodest.”

“There is wide recognition that exclusionary discipline, such as in-school and out-of-school suspensions, and the resulting lost instructional time, are associated with significant, negative educational and other long-term impacts for students. In addition, schools may remove students ‘informally’ from the classroom or use different types of non-exclusionary discipline to enforce dress code violations, but these measures are often unreported,” GAO researchers wrote. “As a result, the prevalence and impact of these discipline practices are largely unknown. [The Education Department] is uniquely positioned to collect nationwide information on informal removals and non-exclusionary discipline and inform future data collection and research that captures a broader range of disciplinary actions and their effect on student engagement and well-being. Accurate records and research on disciplinary actions, including less severe types of discipline, are critical for ensuring all students have equal access to educational opportunity.”