In Practice: Addressing the Hot-Button Issue of the Dress Code

Summer 2020

By Quincey Grieve

in-practice-(1).jpgMost schools have dress codes. They’re a sensitive and highly charged topic, and schools can run into all sorts of problems when the dress code isn’t addressed thoughtfully. In the fall of 2018, our middle school at St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School (VA) had 85 dress code violations, and tensions felt especially high. To protest unfair enforcement of the dress code, a handful of students started wearing uniforms from other schools, and some parents even shared frustrations on social media. The nadir for me—the director of middle school—came in a conversation with eighth grade girls about their frustration with the “your dress is distracting the boys” language from teachers and administrators.
“Would you feel comfortable sharing with me who is saying this—not to get that person in trouble, but so that I can engage in conversation with that person?” I asked the group. One student explained, “Ms. Grieve, you’ve said that to us.”
After much conversation, I realized they were referring to a moment six months before when I’d called a group of girls together after seeing the color of a girl’s underwear because her skirt was so short. In an effort to support students in making better choices while simultaneously trying to be discreet, I said something vague about “appropriateness.” In retrospect, I realized I’d used indirect language, and the students had heard something entirely different than what I’d intended. I explained the misunderstanding to the students—and the reason for it—and they were mortified. They told me they supported such things being addressed.
It was then that I committed to getting to the root of the dress code issue—and I knew it wasn’t just the students’ sartorial decisions. We needed to look at the bigger picture of what a dress code means to our school community. We set out to examine all aspects—the code itself, the philosophy behind it, and our communication around it.

The Background

For decades, the student-parent handbook outlined what students could not wear with mostly gender-specific language. The main philosophy, as stated in the handbook: “A student’s clothing should not be a distraction from the learning process. If a faculty member cautions a student about an article of clothing, he/she should respond to the advice and not wear it in the future. If everyone approaches the dress code in a spirit of cooperation and good taste, clothing should not become a big issue for any student.”
But students weren’t viewing the “advice” from teachers with a spirit of cooperation. Students often perceived dress code violations as negative, demeaning, and embarrassing. I can’t count how many times I spoke with parents who said their child had felt “yelled at” and shamed. From the teachers’ perspective, they were merely trying to do their job of holding students accountable. But there was significant inconsistency in who was addressing dress code violations and who wasn’t. 
Of course, none of this was new. Veteran members of the faculty and administration shared that “the dress code issue” had ebbed and flowed; every few years there would be a groundswell of chatter that “everyone” wanted a uniform, believing that a uniform would help because it’s perceived to be impossible to find shorts and skirts that fit our dress code’s length guidelines and because certain students were always called out, while other students “could get away with anything.”

Our Approach

In the middle of the 2018–2019 school year—in the midst of this dress code unrest—I called for a pause on issuing dress code warnings so we could take stock of the situation. We invested in this work for a few months. First, we emailed separate surveys to students, parents, and faculty. About 50% of families and two-thirds of students and faculty responded. We asked about specific clothing items, and we asked bigger, more philosophical questions: Would you be more comfortable with a dress code with clear guidelines, a dress code with limited options, or a uniform? Do you feel comfortable with the enforcement of the dress code for boys/for girls? What changes would you make to the dress code?
Through this survey data and the information gleaned from student and parent focus groups, we gained insights, especially from the survey comment sections. One parent captured a common theme: “Whatever is decided, please enforce.” Another shared: “Make it fair for both boys and girls. ... I am sooo tired of hearing complaints from the boys about what the girls are allowed to wear.” And while there were a number of strong sentiments about uniforms, the raw data was fascinating. We learned:
  • the majority of students and parents preferred a dress code option;
  • about three-quarters of students felt that leggings, with restrictions, should be allowed; and
  • more than 60% of faculty felt “uncomfortable” enforcing the dress code with girls.
Most profoundly, however, we learned that virtually everyone in the community felt our dialogue around dress code was nonproductive. In our focus group conversations, students and parents used terms such as “targeting” and “body shaming”; faculty used phrases like “I just want to help them make better choices and follow the rules.” As we sifted through all of the anecdotal evidence and data, we gained clarity: Yes, our students wanted to be able to wear leggings and solid-color T-shirts, but they really wanted consistency and dignity around dress code enforcement.      

The Process

A committee of students, faculty, and administrators did the heavy lifting to understand our challenges and to imagine shifts that would make a real difference. They met regularly throughout the spring, sorting through the surveys, analyzing the themes, and discussing changes that would both represent the views of the community and work well with our culture. We were clear that amendments to the dress code were not up for a vote, but the feedback was deeply important to us. With this feedback, the committee created a dress code grounded in philosophy.
In April 2019, I wrote to the community to share that we would pilot a few tweaks to the dress code. We changed the language to be positive and gender neutral. More significantly, we restructured the way we communicate and enforce dress code communication. We eliminated all in-person, off-the-cuff communication around the dress code.
Now, when teachers notice dress code violations, they electronically submit a formal infraction with the specific dress code violation (garment length, informal shoes on chapel day, etc.). That notification goes to the dean of students, who then sends a personal email to the student, cc’ing the student’s parents. The email states the violation and reminds the student that “the purpose of our dress code is to provide guidance to the school community regarding appropriate attire. The dress code is also a means of teaching you a life skill in how to present yourself while you embody the culture of a larger community.” It then invites students to have a conversation with me, the dean of students, or the school counselor to share any questions or concerns about the violation. It opens the door to a conversation that can be thoughtful, candid, and collaborative rather than punitive and personal. The first dress code infraction offers the conversation, but there is no consequence. The second infraction requires a conversation, but there is no consequence. A third infraction requires a conversation and leads to a detention.
We experienced some bumps in implementation, particularly with the anonymous nature of the person issuing the infraction, and for some, “mid-thigh” felt ambiguous. But overall, the new policies were embraced, and we decided to adopt these changes permanently.
Our new philosophy statement, rolled out in our 2019–2020 student-parent handbook, acknowledges the committee’s deep thinking behind the philosophy. Each section (regular dress days, formal dress days, and casual dress days) begins with a philosophy statement. The formal attire philosophy, for example, reads, “Formal attire guidelines exist to recognize that certain events, gatherings, and ceremonies take place and require a more reverent and respectful attire than outlined in our classroom attire guidelines.” In other words, as a community, we expect everyone to wear a tie or a “formal top” during certain occasions, such as chapel services, to show reverence and respect.

The Takeaways

Walking out of chapel recently—historically when we have the most infractions—I didn’t once think about the dress code. It was such a change from the past: Students were dressed appropriately, and there wasn’t any tension in the air. I gut-checked my reaction with my administrative team, faculty members, and students. Overwhelmingly, the response was the same: “It’s good.”
The change seems to be working for several reasons: Students feel trusted and empowered in conversations around dress code, they understand the philosophy, and communication has been open, honest, and accepting of the human element of dress code. There is much greater consistency in enforcement, as the drama around noting an infraction has disappeared. Most important, I believe it’s working because our entire community—
especially students—had a hand in creating it.
The final gut check: the numbers. During the 2019–2020 year, we only had 33 infractions before winter break, and we had zero unpleasant conversations about it.
Maybe the dress code will never become a thing of the past, but our philosophy and communication issues related to it are in the rearview mirror—and will hopefully stay there. 


Dress Code Details

The revised dress code at St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School (VA) was based on student and school community input.
Uniform options. About 10% of students, mostly girls, opt to wear uniforms some days. Students may wear traditional plaid or khaki skirts, khaki pants, polos, oxfords, and blazers, with specific guidelines for regular dress days and formal dress days. Families may order these from vendors that serve schools with uniforms.
Length matters. The “skirt-o-meter”—where a ruler was literally taped to the thigh to show the four-inch mark—is a thing of the past. The guideline now requires skirts and shorts to be “mid-thigh,” and students are to use their best judgment.
All in the framing. After the handbook philosophy statements, we’ve offered a list of what students can wear—as opposed to the previous list of what was prohibited—and we use gender-neutral language. For example, on chapel days, students may wear a coat and tie, or they may wear a “formal top.” That applies to all students.
Quincey Grieve

Quincey Grieve ([email protected]) is the director of Middle School at St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School in Alexandria, VA.