Some parents and students in District 97 are demanding that the administration review its middle school dress code policy, which they believe “disproportionately targets girls,” is inconsistent, burdensome, poorly implemented and possibly sexist, according to a change.org petition that’s been supported by more than 900 people. The petition calls for Percy Julian Middle school to “eliminate or significantly change” its dress code “and the way it is enforced.”
“This is a topic of conversation all the time when moms get together,” said Yasmin Gharavi, a parent of two female students at the school. “One mom said she was called by the school at the beginning of the year because her daughter’s bra strap was showing.”
“Literally every one of my friends wants to go up against the code,” said Julian Middle School sixth-grader Maia Hess. Hess said that last week, she and a throng of friends had prepared to wear shorts to protest the rules, but after teachers talked of potential changes to the code and warned of the disciplinary ramifications of demonstrating against it, the students balked.
Despite being rather ubiquitous, the code couldn’t be located on the school district’s website or in the parent handbook, which is available for download from the district’s website. Students and parents, however, said that it can be easily accessed from iPads that the district supplied to students.
According to parents, the dress code rules only apply to 6th through 8th grade students in the district, with many pointing out that no such clothing restrictions exist either in the lower grades or at the high school level.
Girls are prohibited from wearing leggings without accompanying shirts that extend past their buttocks; shorts and/or skirts that are three inches or more above the knees; and tank tops with shoulder straps that are less than the width of three fingers, among other restrictions.
Parents and students say that if Julian students don’t abide by the restrictions, they’re required to either go home and change or wear their gym uniforms — what the petition refers to as Julian’s “Scarlet Letter” — for the rest of the day. Hess said female students often opt for the latter.
The parents interviewed said that the administration has explained that the rules are in place to accommodate for, and respect, people’s standards of decorum and to mitigate distractions in the classroom.
“The whole idea that they’re saying this is a distraction for boys, I just don’t think that’s good for anybody,” said Eileen D’Ambrogio, whose daughter is in the sixth-grade at Julian. “It teaches the girls to shame themselves. It teaches the boys that they don’t have any control over their eyeballs or hormones or brain,” she said.
Other parents believe that the enforcement of the dress code is more egregious and more arbitrary than the code itself, with the petition claiming that it unfairly targets girls who are “developed” and “who aren’t thin.”
Gharavi said one of her daughters was once pulled aside in the hallway because a teacher thought her shorts weren’t up to code, a claim her daughter had disputed.
“The teacher pulled out a ruler and she measured her shorts,” Gharavi said, noting that the teacher was female. “The teacher said, ‘If you don’t let me measure them you’d have to wear gym shorts.'”
In a separate incident, Gharavi said that, while chaperoning on her other daughter’s 8th grade trip, she herself was subjected to what she claims is the staff’s arbitrary enforcement of the code.
“They suggested that my daughter switch tank tops with me, because my top was three fingers’ width on the shoulder,” she said. “They said my daughter’s was only two fingers’ width. It was 85 degrees outside. Unlike my daughter’s top, mine was plunging and had a very low neckline. I didn’t understand how that would be appropriate for a 13-year-old girl.”
Michelle Hess, Maia’s mother, said that the code has made it difficult to find clothing for her daughter that is both affordable and consistent with the district dress policy.
“With kids and women’s fashion today, the clothes you can get don’t fit the dress code,” Hess said. “Shopping for my daughter for school is impossible, because I can’t find a skirt or a dress that would be acceptable. She’s a tall girl. They don’t make clothes for her that would accommodate the code.”
District 97 spokesman Chris Jasculca acknowledged the parents’ and students’ concerns, noting that school districts across the country are dealing with similar issues of possible gender-bias in their dress codes.
“Our administrative leadership team has talked about the concerns brought forth by these parents/guardians. We also compiled and analyzed information about student dress and appearance that is featured in the handbooks for 20 area districts that are comparable to us in terms of size and demographics,” Jasculca said.
“We are currently using all of the information and feedback we collected to develop district-wide guidelines for student dress and appearance that are less gender specific and will enable us to maintain a positive, healthy and safe learning environment,” he said, adding that the district anticipates the new guidelines to be implemented in all 10 schools “in the next few weeks.”