Imagine being suspended and banned from your graduation over a visible collarbone.
Unfortunately, that’s reality for Summer, a high school senior and honors student at Hickory Ridge High School in North Carolina. She wore a top to school that could barely be described as off the shoulder, but exposed enough of her collarbone to break her school’s rigid dress code and attract the attention of her principal.
According to Summer, the principal confronted her in the cafeteria and asked if she had a jacket to cover herself with. Summer didn’t, but her friend did and let Summer wear it. But even zipping the jacket up to the hilt wasn’t enough: The principal demanded that Summer go to the office and change her shirt. That’s when everything spun out of control.
Due to a history of tension between Summer and her principal, Summer’s mother must be called before any disciplinary action is taken against her daughter. So Summer defied the principal’s demands until her mother could be contacted. When her mother couldn’t be reached, the principal retrieved the gun toting school resource officer (SRO) for backup and gave Summer an ultimatum: Either Summer changes her shirt, or she’ll be arrested. Summer stood her ground and continued to call her mom. She alleges that the principal ordered the SRO to arrest her, but her mom called back just in time. Nevertheless, the school suspended Summer for 10 days and banned her from all senior activities, including graduation.
Summer has a 4.4 GPA and a full-ride scholarship to a university next fall. Needless to say, her academic future is now in jeopardy, all because of a little bit of skin. “A full ride means so much and that is on the line right now,” Summer told a local news affiliate. “It’s just sad because I worked so hard for four years to walk that stage. We have drug dealers walking across that stage, we have sex offenders walking across that stage, and then the 4.4 student who showed her shoulders can’t.”
The school claims that the suspension wasn’t about the dress code violation at all, but rather Summer’s “insubordination” because she wouldn’t listen and didn’t think the shirt was a problem. Did Summer’s outfit break school rules? Yes. But Summer isn’t the only one who was in hot water for dress code violations at her school; Hickory Ridge reportedly sent 45 girls to the principal’s office earlier in the school year for wearing leggings with shirts that were too short.
Given this, the recent news of black students at Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Massachusetts facing detention and suspension for wearing braids, and the countless other stories about ridiculous school dress codes, one thing is clear: School dress codes are out of control and are doing more harm for students than good.
Whether dress codes claim to encourage fairness among a student body of various economic backgrounds, or to reduce distraction, girls–especially black girls–are disproportionately targeted. Sure, boys might get some flack for visible boxers, but clothing and styles marketed toward girls are generally more problematic on the dress code front. It’s hard to find shorts that aren’t pretty damn short. If you have large breasts, good luck finding a top with any semblance of a v-neck that doesn’t show off a little cleavage. When you have school policies that treat leggings like they’re lingerie and sexualize any and all bare skin, girls are essentially being told that their bodies are temples of shame. How does race play into this? Schools have found reasons to deem black hairstyles–from braids, to locs, to afros–divisive and unkempt, largely leaving straightened hair as the only safe option for black students. That’s an incredibly racialized policy. We live in a society where black girls are seen as trouble by default–they’re suspended more than any other demographic–so you can just imagine how a black girl wearing shorts and an afro would be treated by a school with a tough dress code.
My middle school had two rigid dress code policies that affected what girls could wear: No open tied sandals and no spaghetti strap tops. Sure, it was annoying, and girls got busted for dress code violations pretty regularly, but nobody was ever suspended over it. My high school was on the same campus as my middle school, but the rules were totally different: There were no rules. Yes, really. You could wear whatever you wanted as long as it wasn’t covered in profanity. Somehow, some way, my entire senior class graduated, likely without Billy getting too distracted by Emily’s thighs to take notes in bio.
My friend dyed her hair blue, another got her tongue pierced. Some girls wore skirts so short that the inner pockets were visible below the hemlines. Others wore leggings so tight that you could probably tell what kind of underwear they were rocking. And yet, the world didn’t end and nobody’s academic future was in jeopardy. Sure, maybe someone went home and cried one day because she couldn’t afford a Juicy Couture sweatsuit like the rest of her classmates (it was the 2000s, I’m sorry), but that’s about it. People wore what they wanted, whether it was a matter of staying on trend or showing a little individuality, and it was largely celebrated. So why are school trying to revert their dress codes to the 1950s? Hell, your mom probably had more freedom over what she could wear to school than you do today. Skeptical? Look at these photos of high school students from 1969.
School dress codes aren’t made with students’ academic interests in mind. If they were, then schools would think twice before giving a student detention or threatening them with expulsion over an exposed collarbone or a black hairstyle. It’s common for schools to have dress codes that are so intricate, so dense, and so strict that they might as well force students to wear school uniforms instead. Maybe school uniforms are a good alternative to a school policy that routinely targets girls’ bodies. Otherwise, until some study comes out that reveals that these school dress codes are actually helping students, schools should just ban school dress codes all together. Focus on engaging students. Focus on providing students with a safe learning environment. Focus on making sure students can do more than just pass a statewide exam at the end of the year. That’s actually going to help them in the future. Banning them from wearing a tank top on a blazing hot day? Yeah, not so much.
What do you think of Summer’s story? What’s your take on school dress codes in general? Tell us in the comments!