Are dress codes fair? How one middle school transformed its rules for what students wear

View the full episode transcript.

In 2018, following the reveal of a new dress code, students enthusiastically showed up to Alice Deal Middle School in spaghetti straps, flip flops and short hemlines. “It was just on parade,” said Principal Diedre Neal about students’ attire. With time, the strappy, short outfits leveled off. Neal said that while adolescents revel in novelty, their desire to be comfortable won out in the end: “They ran out of completely outrageous things. The completely outrageous things are also not comfortable or feasible.”

The decision to reevaluate the dress code arose from the realization that the existing policies were no longer aligned with the needs of the students at Alice Deal, a public middle school in Washington, D.C. Prior to the change, students were pulled out of class if their outfits violated the school dress code. “They had their work. They were engaging. They were learning,” said Neal. “And we took them away from their learning to have a conversation about what they were wearing.” For instance, Zya Kinney, now 23, remembered getting pulled out of class by a teacher and being asked to do the “fingertip test” — a practice where students put their hand by their sides to see if the hemline of their shorts or skirts pass their fingertips. When Kinney’s skirt did not pass her fingertips, she had to change into her gym shorts. “I had to go back to that classroom,” said Kinney, who described herself as an insecure middle schooler. “That is embarrassing.”

To reshape the policy in a way that truly supported student learning and wellbeing, Neal embraced a school-wide approach. She knew that for an updated dress code to be successful and work for learners, it required the active involvement from the students and community members it would impact.

Identify the gaps

The catalyst for changing the dress code at Alice Deal came in the form of a dress code report written by Nia Evans from the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) and a group of students in 2018. The report brought to light the discriminatory and harmful effects of dress code policies at schools in D.C. Evans’ research focused on school pushout — when schools use exclusionary discipline practices that result in students leaving school altogether. “What we found in conversations with students, parents and teachers was that dress codes were consistently coming up as a massive contributor to school push out,” Evans said.

She recruited over 20 young people ages 12 to 18 to research dress codes with her and produce a report on dress codes featuring the twelve schools they collectively attended in DC. Their findings exposed gender and race stereotypes within dress code policies. “They were using language saying girls need to cover up to avoid distracting boys or Black girls can’t wear head wraps because it’s unprofessional or it’s not neat,” said Evans.These policies resulted in harsh punishments ranging from disrupting classroom time to suspensions. According to a Government Accountability Office report, 90% of dress codes have policies that dictate what girls can wear. The NWLC found that Black girls, who had the highest suspension rate in the country compared to white girls, were being unfairly targeted by school dress codes.

Uniforms, which are lauded as a way to reduce the appearance of economic disparity, proved to be an imperfect solution. Nearly 20% of the nation’s public schools and preschools require uniforms, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Over the course of their research, students found that uniforms, often sold at specific stores, can become a financial burden for many families. They can also be limiting from a developmental standpoint. “You’re taking an opportunity away from students to be able to express themselves,” Evans said. The student researchers found that uniforms can alienate non-binary students. “We are enforcing what we think girls should look like and what boys should look like. We’re not creating a lot of space for any type of spectrum,” Evans added.

The student researchers proposed solutions for school leaders looking to improve their dress codes. They recommended the creation of dress code task forces, made up of teachers, administrators, parents, and students, to discuss whether a school’s dress code achieved the intended goals. They emphasized the importance of, allowing students to express their authentic selves, including cultural representations like headwraps and Black hairstyles. Additionally, students called for gender-neutral dress codes that didn’t require students to have to wear specific clothes because of their gender identity. They also suggested taking out vague language such as ‘distracting’ or ‘inappropriate’ from dress code policies, as it often leaves room for teacher bias and subjective interpretation.

Collaboration and communication

At Alice Deal, Principal Neal partnered with parent Deborah Zerwitz to get input from students and families before changing the dress code. Zerwitz drew insights from the NWLC report, as well as from student-centered practices from Evanston Township High School in Illinois, a school that had changed their dress code the year prior. Recognizing the need to foster a respectful and equitable learning environment, Evanston Township engaged in collaborative discussions involving students, parents, teachers, and administrators to redefine their dress code guidelines.

Neal let parents know in her weekly newsletter that they could attend four listening sessions for students, parents and administrators to voice their ideas and opinions on the dress code. Listening sessions were offered at various times and locations on and off the school campus to make them as accessible as possible. To gather even more student feedback, Zerwitz put up poster boards outside of the school cafeteria with questions like:

  • “What changes would you make to the dress code?”
  • “What do you think about school uniforms?”
  • “What should the consequences be for violating a dress code?”

Students could stick post-it notes to the board with their answers or place anonymous ideas in a shoebox with a slot in it..

Additionally, Neal and Zerwitz created a task force made up of student and parent volunteers. “Somebody’s got to put pen to paper at some point,” said Zerwitz. “We were trying to identify a core group of people that will actually take all this information and distill it.” The task force used the feedback from the listening sessions and posters to create the new dress code.

Empowering students and redefining dress code policies

Zerwitz and Neal received diverse feedback about the dress code, with students, particularly girls, expressing their desire to be heard and understood. “They wanted to say how it was making them feel. And they felt awkward. They felt like, ‘Why are these grown ups looking at me every morning and telling me something’s wrong?” Zerwitz said.

The consensus from teachers was that they did not like spending time enforcing the dress code. However, some teachers — usually older teachers, Zerwitz said — tended to think the students should dress professionally for school and were in favor of a strict dress code.

Among parents, safety concerns surfaced. For example, a parent of two Black boys said that she likes using the dress code policies as a reason her son cannot wear hoodies to school. Citing concerns about stereotypes and racial profiling, especially considering incidents like the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, the parent explained that she could “breathe a little bit easier when my two Black sons leave the house and they’re not wearing a hood.”

With support from the NWLC, Neal, Zerwitz and the task force members worked through these tensions. “Sometimes in wanting to protect our young people, we end up reinforcing the very inequalities that the world puts on them,” said Evans. “The solution to sexual harassment isn’t to get girls to cover up. The solution to police violence and racist violence is not to punish Black boys for wearing hoodies.”

Long-term benefits and impact

The results of the schoolwide effort to change the dress code came at the end of the 2017-18 school year when Alice Deal Middle School introduced a revised, gender non-specific and relaxed dress code. Students were required to cover the core of their bodies with opaque fabric, but there was greater flexibility with articles like crop tops and hoodies. Importantly, teachers were advised not to remove students from class if they violated the dress code. Principal Neal saw a decrease in dress code-related disciplinary actions. Students reported feeling more comfortable expressing their identities, which is associated with overall well-being.

Despite the positive changes, in interviews last year, some students reported that certain staff members still commented on what they wore. “We’re still working with staff,” said Neal. “I need to check with students and see if people are dress coding them.”

The journey to a new dress code was a source of pride for students. In a graduation shortly after the revised dress code was implemented, Zerwitz listened to a student speaker talk about how the class collectively achieved this transformation. It was evident to Zerwitz that the students understood the power of their voices and felt empowered by the impact they had at their school. “Those kids — all of the ones that came to the listening sessions or wrote a note in the little box or whatever — all of them contributed in some way to this,” said Zerwitz. “And, hopefully, [they went to high school] knowing that their voice matters.”

Episode Transcript

This is a computer-generated transcript. While our team has reviewed it, there may be errors.

Nimah Gobir: Welcome to MindShift. Where we explore the future of learning and how we raise our kids. I’m Nimah Gobir.

Nimah Gobir: Every day, when students get ready in the morning, they are faced with a challenge: [dramatic music] deciding what to wear to school that day.

Nimah Gobir: They have to weigh a lot of factors. Like…What makes me feel comfortable? What’s the weather outside? And maybe even What will my crush in 3rd period think about my fit?

Nimah Gobir: In 7th grade, when Zya Kinney was in her favorite outfit, you couldn’t tell her nothing.

Zya Kinney: I wore my red skirt with a spaghetti strap kind of tank top – And I had no leggings on. I was feeling myself!

Nimah Gobir: Zya’s twenty-three now. She was talking about when she was a student at Alice Deal Middle School in Washington, DC. It was ten years ago, but she remembers how putting on the perfect outfit could make her feel good about herself.

Zya Kinney: I would just put on whatever was comfortable and whatever was like kind of cute. And i would have my little pop out moments here and there.

Nimah Gobir: One of the reasons Zya remembers the outfit she wore is because it was the day she got dress coded.

Nimah Gobir: That means she was in violation of the school’s rules that dictate what students should and should not wear. There’s usually language about visible skin, footwear and even hair in some cases. Most schools have them, but they can be flawed.

Leora Tanenbaum: The big irony, of course, that lies at the heart of school dress codes is that they are drafted with the intention of eliminating distraction and helping learners. But the opposite actually happens in the end because learners themselves are targeted and therefore they are unable to focus on learning.

Nimah Gobir: That’s writer and researcher Leora Tanenbaum. She also calls out dress code incidents on her Instagram.

Leora Tanenbaum: Where they go wrong is when they are gendered. When the codes are created with a presupposition that girls’ bodies pose a distraction to other learners and therefore girls’ bodies need to be covered up in a specific way. And therefore the dress code is drafted in a way that has different language and different rules depending on one’s gender.

Nimah Gobir: If you violate the dress code, a teacher might call you over to talk with you privately about your clothes or you’ll be sent to the principal’s office. You might have to do the fingertip test where you put your hands by your sides and see if your skirt or shorts go past your fingertips.

Leora Tanenbaum: It embarrasses the student. It makes her all of a sudden very aware of her physicality in a way that she may not have been at all. The teacher might assume she was aware of her physicality but you can’t assume that.

Nimah Gobir: Zya was in class when she got dress coded.

Zya Kinney: My teacher gave us some work to do. Like just busy work or whatever. And she’s like, ‘Can I talk to you, you know, outside the classroom?’ You know, I think I’m not even thinking it has something to do with my outfit. She said ” Your skirt is too short.”

Nimah Gobir: When Zya put her hands at her sides, her middle fingertips were just barely past her skirt!

Zya Kinney: and, do you know, they made me change it to my gym shorts? I’m walking around here, cute up top, gym down, down…down below, like I’m not looking the same. And I remember being so upset about it because it’s like, Why are you sexualizing a seventh grader?

Nimah Gobir: To her, it was so much more than having to change clothes. She was trying to fit in and be confident and her school basically told her that she was doing it wrong.

Zya Kinney: I can’t lie and tell you that the popular girls weren’t wearing the skirts and had all the new things. They had the accessories. They had like three different book bags in rotation when I had just the one backpack. And I definitely remember seeing the difference in attention that they would get from guys and stuff like that, and then even their girlfriends. Like I felt like they were always the ones that you chose for stuff or, you know, they were like the most likable people and everything. And while I was, I was okay with myself, but I was also really insecure too. [00:07:01][19.3]

Nimah Gobir: Zya, who’s Black, also noticed something else about the dress codes…

Zya Kinney: It wasn’t until I started wearing skirts and dresses and I noticed how my white friends wouldn’t have anything said to them about what they have on. And I realized, okay, if I wear a skirt and she wears a skirt, we have on two different skirts.

Nimah Gobir: And Zya was on to something. Here’s researcher and writer Nia Evans.

Nia Evans: I’m basically a Black girl who grew up in D.C. And when I was working at the National Women’s Law Center, we were doing a lot of research about what we call school push out.

Nimah Gobir: School push out is basically when schools use disciplinary actions that exclude students. These discipline practices often end up forcing students out of school altogether.

Nia Evans: What we found was that dress codes were consistently coming up as a massive contributor to school push out. That black girls in particular were being unfairly targeted by school dress codes. But not only were they being treated differently in school, they were being removed from schools.

Nimah Gobir: At the time she was doing this research – around 2018. Black girls had some of the highest suspension rates in the country. So high that the obama administration opened investigations into school discipline policies. back then black girls were 20 times more likely to be suspended than white girls. And to be clear, it was not because Black girls were misbehaving more, it’s because they were being targeted by harsher rules.

Nia Evans: We decided to partner with the experts when it comes to dress codes, which is students. We recruited over 20 young people, ages 12 to 18 from 12 different high schools in Washington, D.C., to be our co-researchers.

Nimah Gobir: Nia worked with them to produce a report about their experiences with dress codes and how they’re enforced. What they found confirmed Zya’s suspicions: for black students, dress codes hit different.

Nia Evans: Dress codes often are steeped in race and gender stereotypes. They were using language saying, you know, girls need to cover up to avoid from distracting boys or black girls can’t wear head wraps because it’s unprofessional or it’s not neat.

Nia Evans: At a high level, a lot of these rules are sort of remnants of racist, sexist ideas and are invested in and are a mechanism to sort of keep students in line and to communicate a certain narrative around what it means to be professional, what it means to be neat, what it means to be successful.

Nimah Gobir: Many schools will defend their dress code saying that they want their students to be prepared to dress for jobs as an adult, but that’s open to interpretation. Different jobs require different clothes. Zya, the 23 year old I spoke to dresses pretty casually for her job at ABC studios because she’s running around delivering scripts to producers all day.

Nimah Gobir: When dress codes come into question, sometimes the response is to put kids in uniforms – almost half of schools and preschools use uniforms now. It makes sense… If everyone has to wear the same thing that means no more problems right? Well… not necessarily. Here’s Nia again.

Nia Evans: From a growth standpoint, you’re taking an opportunity away from students to be able to express themselves. Uniforms are often gender specific, which means, again, we are enforcing what we think girls should look like, boys should look like. We’re not creating a lot of space for any in between any type of spectrum.

Nimah Gobir: The students that Nia worked with offered a few solutions.

Nia Evans: A lot of them recommended that schools create dress code task force forces, where teachers and administrators and parents and students can come together and really start with the question of what is the goal of this? Why do we have a dress code? What is the point? Is it achieving its goals? And if it’s not, do we need it?

Nia Evans: So it really ignited, I think, a long overdue issue in D.C. And we saw a lot of student and parent activism as a result of it. And some teachers and administrators listened.

Nimah Gobir: News of this report reached the principal at Zya’s former school – Alice Deal middle school. And when we get back from the break we’ll hear about what THE principal did when she took a closer look at her school’s dress code. Her reaction may surprise you.

Nimah Gobir: When I talked to Principal Diedre Neal from Alice Deal Middle School she said that moments ago there were three young women in her office. One was wearing ripped jeans, another was wearing a tube top, and another wearing a spaghetti strap tank top. Ordinarily, they all would have gotten dress coded, but something amazing happened: Principal Neal didn’t care.

Nimah Gobir: And that’s significant because dress codes used to be a situation…

Diedre Neal: Every spring when children wanted to shift from, you know, long pants to shorts and skirts, there would be either commentary or and I’m smiling because there was always a petition. It was always a petition. And I remember saying, “I can’t wait until we solve this issue, and then you can move on and give me a petition for something else.”

Nimah Gobir: After reading the dress code report, Principal Neal recognized that it was probably time for dress codes to change.

Diedre Neal: Over time, like enforcing it. I would say there was cognitive dissonance. People were being sent out of class to address what they had on. So they were in class , they had their work, they were engaging, they were learning, and so we took them away from their learning to have a conversation about what they were wearing.

Nimah Gobir: She needed to figure out what it would take to make Alice Deal’s dress code work in favor of learning. To get started, Principal Neal partnered with a parent named Debb Zerwitz.

Debb Zerwitz: We announced that we were going to be creating a task force to review and update the dress code.

Nimah Gobir: They created a little set up outside the school cafeteria .

Debb Zerwitz: We put up big poster boards with questions like.

Debb Zerwitz: What changes would you make to the dress code? What do you think about school uniforms? And what should the consequences be for violating a dress code?

Nimah Gobir: They had post-it notes in all these different colors so students could stick their ideas to the poster board. And they had 4 listening sessions where they would get feedback and input from students, administrators and parents. They had conversations with parents who wanted to keep the dress code for really valid reasons. For example, a lot of schools don’t let students wear hoodies. Black parents didn’t want their kids wearing hooded sweatshirts out the door because of Trayvon Martin.

[News clip

Reporter: Trayvon Martin was wearing a gray hoodie the night he was killed, a fact that caught the attention of neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman.

Zimmerman: This guy looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something.

Dispatcher: Did you see what he was wearing?

Zimmerman: Yeah. A dark hoodie. Like a gray hoodie.

Reporter: A few minutes later Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin, he claims, in self defense.]

Nimah Gobir: One Black parent in one of the listening sessions, said she liked having the support of the school dress code, to keep her child from wearing hoodies .

Debb Zerwitz: She said I can point to the policy and say you’re going to get in trouble and you’re going to get you’re going to have to change your clothes and it’s going to be embarrassing that that helps me at home if there’s a policy. Who the hell am I to, like, dismiss this mother telling me like, I like the dress code? And this is one of the reasons why. Like, of course I hear you. You know I do.

Nimah Gobir: Another thing that surfaced in the listening sessions were some generational differences. In many cases it’s older Black adults telling younger black kids that they need to look more presentable. In other words, they leaned into respectability politics, a way of trying to navigate prejudice and discrimination by making oneself match the visual standards set by those in power. . It’s basically saying, “Hey, look, we’re just like you, so you should respect us and treat us better!”

Nimah Gobir: Nia — she’s the researcher who made the dress code report with students — noticed respectability politics in dress codes too.

Nia Evans: You also have a deeper layer of Black teachers and young people and parents who love each other, who are really struggling with how to keep kids safe. And the same way the solution to sexual harassment isn’t to get girls to cover up. The solution to police violence and racist violence is not to punish black boys for wearing hoodies.

Nia Evans: I don’t think you can dress your way out of racism and sexism. I don’t. And I also think that sometimes in wanting to protect our young people, we end up reinforcing the very inequalities that the world puts on them.

Nia Evans: Dress codes actually hold a lot of our values and fears and anxieties as a culture. It says a lot about how we want students and young people to move through the world, how we want to protect them, how we want to set them up for success and our baggage as a culture around race and gender and sexuality and different identities.

Nimah Gobir: Based on what she learned from all the feedback , Principal Neal with the help of Deb and the National Women’s Law Center ended up changing their dress code to be more casual and gender nonspecific. Technically, students are required to wear clothing that covers the core of the student’s body including private areas and midriff, with opaque fabric. But no one really says anything about crop tops. Even if a student is in violation of the dress code they are not supposed to be taken out of class.

Nimah Gobir: When the dress code changed, students had an enthusiastic response. All the clothing they couldn’t wear before was on display. Here’s Principal Neal again.

Principal Neal: It was just on parade and then they ran out of the completely outrageous things and it leveled off.

Nimah Gobir: A student even mentioned in their graduation speech the way Alice Deal middle school’s student body had worked together to change the dress code. It was clear that being part of creating meaningful change at their school felt really empowering to students.

Nimah Gobir: To find out what Alice Deal Middle School Students are wearing these days we went straight to the source. These students may be walking down hallways instead of the red carpet, but I still wanted to know “Who are you wearing?” “How did you achieve this look?”

Student 1: I like to put on something that’ll make me comfortable and also make me feel good.

Student 2: Jewelry is a really big part of like, what I wear.

Student 3: I’m wearing leggings right now, but that’s kind of just because it’s kind of colder right now than it normally is.

Student 2: I have a lot of bracelets on most of the time.

Student 1: Right now I’m just wearing sweatpants and my Reeboks, which are the shoes that I like to wear because they’re comfortable.

Student 4: I mostly wear crocs.

Nimah Gobir: Sweatpants. Crocs. Leggings. They sound pretty unburdened. And you know what else….they sound comfy.

Student: I feel like, in a sense, we don’t really have a dress code like we’re allowed to wear what we want. But like to a certain point.

Nimah Gobir: But not all teachers and administrators are fully on board. Some students mentioned that there are still teachers at the school who call them out for what they’re wearing.

Nimah Gobir: It’s one thing to change a policy, but it’s another thing to change the hearts and minds of all the administrators and teachers. Here’s principal Neal talking about next steps.

Diedre Neal: We’re still working with staff. I now know that I need to check with students and see if people are dress coding them.

Nimah Gobir: Some might call what Principal Neal did intellectual humility. It involves recognizing the limits of what you think you know. When Principal Neal learned more from students, parents and research, she realized the dress codes might be doing more harm than good.

Nimah Gobir: Alice Deal Middle School set out to re-evaluate their dress code and even though they’re still working with teachers on changing their mindsets, it is a step towards better reflecting the needs and identities of their students. It’s important to involve students in the process of creating policies that impact them. While it may not solve every problem, it is an essential step towards finding more equitable and inclusive solutions.

Nimah Gobir: Thank you to Lawrence Lanahan, Zya Kinney, Leora Tanenbaum, Nia Evans, Debb Zerwitz, Principal Diedre Neal and students at Alice Deal Middle School

Nimah Gobir: The MindShift team includes Ki Sung, Kara Newhouse, Marlena Jackson Retondo and me, Nimah Gobir. Our editor is Chris Hambrick, Seth Samuel is our sound designer, Jen Chien is our head of podcasts, and Holly Kernan is KQED’s chief content officer.

Nimah Gobir: MindShift’s intellectual humility series is supported by the Greater Good Science Center’s “Expanding Awareness of the Science of Intellectual Humility” project and the Templeton Foundation.

Nimah Gobir: MindShift is also supported in part by the generosity of the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation and members of KQED. Thank you for listening!

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