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School Dress Codes



School dress codes are often a topic of debate. Allowing students to express their individuality while still maintaining a proper educational environment can be very difficult. This article covers basic dress code and school uniform issues.

School dress codes may either provide guidelines for clothes that students choose themselves or for the wearing of school uniforms mandated by the school district. When school dress codes of either type are discussed, the two types of issues that usually surface are those of freedom of speech and those concerned with maintaining an orderly, undisrupted school environment free from health and safety issues. Here are some of the fundamentals.

Basic School Dress Code

School dress codes are often promulgated either by individual schools or by school districts. School dress codes characteristically address several areas of attire and grooming.

Most measures in school dress codes are intended to limit exacerbating messages and provocative displays, whether intentional or unintentional. Some may help prevent students from carrying concealed weapons. Others foster a situation in which all students can be immediately identified by preventing items that obscure the head and face. Often involved are the following:

  • Decorations, designs, mottoes, symbols, or words may not appear either on clothing or on the skin��"conveying messages that are crude, vulgar, profane, violent, sexually explicit or that reference items that are illegal in general or illegal specifically for underage students, such as tobacco, alcohol, and illegal drugs, or that are connected with any secret organization or gang.
  • In order that undergarments not show, sagging pants, spaghetti straps, and skirts shorter than fingertip length or a designated number of inches above the knee are prohibited. Belts must be worn and fastened in belt loops and zippers on pants and shirts must be zipped.
  • The midriff must be covered and strapless upper garments may not be worn.
  • Outer garments worn during inclement weather are stored in lockers during the school day.
  • Head coverings such as hats, caps, and hoods may be banned. Sunglasses worn inside may also be forbidden.
  • Sleeveless garments may be prohibited.
  • Spandex and underwear worn over clothing may be explicitly forbidden.
  • Limits may be placed on footwear to ensure that students will not easily trip or injure their feet and on piercings for health and safety reasons.

In addition, there are often guidelines or prescribed uniforms for physical education usually designed with safety in mind, and laboratory classes may have further regulations with regard to safety goggles and appropriate attire, as well as containing long hair.

However, if or when a student’s beliefs or health raises a conflict with the dress code, the school or district is likely to have a procedure and/or policy to address the situation. This is also true (or should be) if the student is clearly attempting to convey a political, social, or religious message in an orderly way that is respectful to others.

School Uniforms

School uniforms range from individually purchased clothing that meets certain criteria (for example, “a white polo shirt with two or three buttons and no colored trim”) or made-to-order clothing available from one particular retailer. 

Most uniform specifications include upper garments (shirts/blouses) and lower garments (pants/skirts/shorts), as well as jumpers. There may also be specifications for:

  • distinctive clothing for different seasons
  • gym uniforms
  • footwear from classroom and physical education
  • socks and tights
  • sweaters or sweatshirts
  • hats
  • coats/jackets

School Dress Codes and Student Rights

School officials argue that the limitations involved in a dress code��"besides contributing to safety and discipline��"have the effect of encouraging students to find other ways to express their individuality. They say that uniforms reduce the visible differences between students of different socioeconomic classes and remove pressure to dress in particular ways. They also say that having a school uniform can help foster a sense of pride and belonging.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) takes a different stance. They say that instituting a school uniform policy goes beyond what is reasonable in establishing a dress code that encourages decorum and promotes safety. Nevertheless, a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling in San Franciso in May 2008 upheld a Nevada school district’s uniform policy in Jacobs v. Clark County School District, with the opinion noting that the uniform policies “limit only one form of student expression (while leaving open many other channels for student communication.”

Looking at the summaries above, it’s clear that many of the choices that are limited by the specifications listed there are in the realm of fashion and style, but not that they fall in the realm of protected freedoms. So whether they constitute a First Amendment violation and whether the courts are interested in spending time on it are separate questions.

Sources

ACLU of Pennsylvania Student Manual

Various school dress codes

Education Week “U.S. Appeals Court Backs District’s Rules on School Uniforms”

Written by Mary Elizabeth