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Posted at 11:35 AM ET, 03/10/2010

Common sense on school dress codes

By Valerie Strauss

When I went to high school back in the 1970s in Miami, we were not allowed to wear shorts. In Miami. It gets really hot in Miami.

Being something of a contrarian, I decided to start wearing them anyway. Other students joined in, and, as a result, the no-shorts policy disappeared.

Now we see kids coming to school in clothes that -- at least to adults -- look like they are so tight that they leave nothing to the imagination -- or so loose that they seem to be falling off. Kids, of course, don’t see it that way.

What might be distracting to an adult may not be to an adolescent.

Now we have a situation in which a Montgomery County teacher at Seneca Valley High School had to apologize to a girl whom he said looked like a prostitute. I saw a picture of her in the offending outfit--as did some of my colleagues--and we all agreed that we had no idea what the teacher was talking about. She looked fine.

The point is that sensibilities on how to dress are really individual. The other point is that schools do have a right to set codes about what is proper dress, though where to draw the line is not necessarily so easy. Is a quarter inch of cleavage acceptable? How high up on hips do pants have to ride?

I confess that sometimes I think all schools should ask kids to wear uniforms, a move that would eliminate a lot of the issues that surround wardrobe -- cost, the time kids take obsessing about what to wear, the time teachers and administrators take to enforce the dress code.

But research on the effect of uniforms in schools is mixed. Some has shown no direct effect of uniforms on substance use, behavioral problems or attendance; some schools in which uniforms were introduced showed moderate improvements in test scores and behavior, but there was no way to attribute that to dress code alone.

Besides, kids would still obsess about how to individualize their uniform, and teachers/administrators spend time monitoring the dress code anyway.

Perhaps common sense is the best approach. Parents need to take a look at what their kids are wearing when they go to school. If the skirt is so short that your child really can't sit comfortably, have her change. If a shirt is so tight that the first thing you notice -- and keep noticing -- is your daughter's bust, have her change. If your son's pants are so low that his underpants are hanging out, have him change. This isn't really that hard.

As for teachers, the one lesson we can take away from this Seneca Valley is that teachers should never, ever, speak in a derogatory way about a student -- at least within earshot of anyone who can report back.


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By Valerie Strauss  | March 10, 2010; 11:35 AM ET
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Sorry, Val, but I can't agree. I'm no prude by any means, but CHILDREN under 18 should be dressed for school in an appropriate way. What some wear is outlandishly explicit. The way these children dress should not be determined by pack mentality, nor is it at all close to your personal example. Some decorum is in order. I wouldn't let my child dress in such a way. As you said it may be distracting to adults, but not the children. But, it is adults that are trying to teach, discipline and keep safe when the children are at school. Imposing some rules on our children is not a bad thing.

Posted by: jckdoors | March 10, 2010 12:43 PM | Report abuse

This episode reminds me of a middle school where I taught. The principal told the students before the graduation ceremony that they would have to dress appropriately. He didn't know that all the dresses that spring were either strapless or had spaghetti straps, so he mentioned that no strapless dresses would be allowed.

Some girls rushed out to buy little sweaters, but most didn't bother and showed up in the current styles.

Now that I have a preteen daughter I realize that sometimes she grows quickly out of her clothes and seemingly overnight she has changed and is bulging out of something that previously looked just fine. It doesn't help that skinny jeans are in or that most singers appear to wear lingerie.

Posted by: celestun100 | March 10, 2010 12:48 PM | Report abuse

Ask the local pervs how they want your children to dress.

Posted by: uncivil | March 10, 2010 1:26 PM | Report abuse

Unfortunately, girls are often the worst offenders of dress codes. Some really DO look like prostitutes. I wonder what the heck were their parents thinking when they let their daughters walk out of the house looking like jail bait. As for the teacher--I say kudos to her for trying to teach these kids some decency. Just because a singer wears something in a video, does not make it acceptable to wear to school.

Posted by: PepperDr | March 10, 2010 2:02 PM | Report abuse

The problem with common sense, is that it *isn't* common.

Unfortunately, without the definitive barriers (i.e., skirts must be as long as a girl's fingers when she's standing up with her hands at her sides, no spaghetti straps -- two from my HS days), it all becomes really subjective and you end up spending more time arguing with the kids and the adults involved (both at home and at school) than it's actually worth.

Course then once you've established these boundaries, then the students and parents have to go find approriate stuff in the stores, which can be harder than one might otherwise imagine....

Posted by: | March 10, 2010 2:30 PM | Report abuse

The comment of the teacher was inappropriate.

The dress of the student was inappropriate but then the dress of almost all of the students in public schools is inappropriate.

Time for school uniforms in public schools. Would probably save parent money and trouble. Would certainly delay for children peer pressure regarding clothing.

And girls can wear either pants or a skirt.

Posted by: bsallamack | March 10, 2010 2:49 PM | Report abuse

After being in public school k-8, I switched to a private high school, with a uniform. It was the best thing ever; I loved having a uniform. I often remarked as a teacher that I wish WE had uniforms, too. Our uniform had to be purchased from a specific company, making it more expensive than it had to be, but many schools today have "uniforms" that require khaki pants and white polos, or some other variation of colors. I think that's just genius - it's easy to find basic pants and polos in just about any color, and you can find them at different places, for different price points, depending on what you want to pay.

Do teachers still have to spend some time enforcing a dress code? Sure, but it's a LOT less subjective than trying to enforce any other dress code. I found (as a teacher) that a lot of teachers ignored infractions because they just weren't comfortable saying, "Honey, that skirt is way too short." It would be much easier to say, "That's not a polo; you're out of uniform," or "We don't allow printed t-shirts in this school."

Posted by: LadybugLa | March 10, 2010 3:32 PM | Report abuse

The whole problem with your idea, Ms. Strauss, is that your parents, like parents of today, let their kids do what they want. Your rebellion of yesterday is no different than kids today wearing what they want.

Uniforms may, or may not, help the kids academically. Whether they do or not is beside the point. Uniforms give teachers one less thing to worry about. And since the parents seem to be lacking in common sense it is one less thing teachers have to do that the parents aren't doing.

Posted by: BigBubba1 | March 10, 2010 9:29 PM | Report abuse

I have raised five kids, four in public schools and one in Catholic school. I have noted that the public schools have dress codes, but they aren't enforced. They are a joke. This also extends to the grooming of hair and personal hygiene. And that's the kids.
I know of several teachers who think it's OK to have inappropriate tattoos, flip flops for shoes (this is So. CA) and unnatural hair colors. Great role models, eh?
My youngest child wears a uniform and loves it. She likes knowing the dress of the day. There's no competition of clothes and the students all look good. It is one less issue that a teacher has to deal with.
Perhaps if public schools went to uniforms, they would have one fewer issue and everyone would at least be dressed modestly.

Posted by: kodonivan | March 10, 2010 9:50 PM | Report abuse

To celestun100: My high school principal waited until rehearsal, three hours before graduation, to tell the boys he expected them to wear white shirts and ties. This was the late 1960s, when pastel dress shirts were the fashion, and few teenagers in the area owned white shirts.

I also remember in grade school the girls got less recess in cold weather because we had to wait until the boys left the room to put our slacks on under our dresses and come in a few minutes early to take them off again. Not to mention not being able to play certain games in warm weather because if you played tag with the boys they lifted your dress and if you tried to use any of the equipment besides a swing, the boys stood around hoping to catch a glimpse of your underwear.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | March 10, 2010 10:14 PM | Report abuse

I don't see what hair color has to do with being a rolemodel, kodonivan.

Posted by: reiflame1 | March 10, 2010 10:15 PM | Report abuse

Ms. Strauss, I take exception to the following statement at the close of your column:
"As for teachers, the one lesson we can take away from this (incident in) Seneca Valley is that teachers should never, ever, speak in a derogatory way about a student -- at least within earshot of anyone who can report back."
You seem to be implying that the only drawback to speaking in a derogatory way about a student is that someone else might hear and there would be negative consequences for the teacher. You forgot to note that the major drawback to telling a student she looks like a prostitute is that it is a deeply offensive and insulting statement, regardless of how the student is actually dressed. Even if the student is dressed in a provocative and revealing way, the teacher is expected to behave--and speak--in a way that sets a professional example, even if that one student is the only one who is listening. To imply otherwise is to suggest that there is no harm done if the teacher doesn't get caught.

Posted by: csmwapo | March 11, 2010 1:45 PM | Report abuse

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