Explaining a Dress Code to 87 Holden Caufields
May 16, 2014 1:20 PM   Subscribe

I'm a principal at a therapeutic high school and my students are railing against our school dress code now that the warmer weather is here. What's happening is that female students will be approached by female staff and the males vice versa, they are told their clothing is in violation of the school dress code, and they are given an opportunity to change/cover up. If the student refuses to comply with the dress code, they serve an in-school detention during lunch. If it happens twice, parents are called. But the kids are revolting. Literally. And in every sense of the word.

This is a school for kids with emotional disabilities, so they are generally much more argumentative than neurotypical teens.

The dress code is pretty standard:

no clothing with alcohol or illegal drug references
no bare midriffs
no underwear showing.

Today we had an incident where a female student was wearing a half-shirt with her entire midriff on display. A female staff member pulled her aside 1:1, reminded her of the dress code, and told her she needed to cover her bare midriff or she would receive a detention. She showed her a copy of the dress code.

The student went off on a rant. About freedom to wear what she wants, about ridiculous rules, about her personal rights, about choosing to not participate in slut shaming and rape culture.

Within minutes I had 4 teenage boys with their shirts pulled up, refusing to pull them down. Then more girls doing it. It was insane. Kids yelling at staff, kids getting upset.

So, I gave all the kids a homework assignment to write up all of their concerns about the dress code and I told them that the administrative team will meet with them and hear all of their concerns and we will discuss them.

But here's the thing: the rationale behind the dress code is that there are certain societal standards to which we all adhere as a sign of respect for others.

That's really all we have.

I do not want to go into battle with a plethora of angry, disenfranchised teens and honestly, I don't want to spend too much time trying to get across a point which ultimately comes down to societal rules and "because I said so."

I also don't want to see anyone's thong. Or belly button piercing.

What would be the most effective way to get a gang of angry, emotionally challenged teenagers to understand there's a dress code, it's not asking for much, so please live with it?
posted by kinetic to Human Relations (55 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Create a committee with both students and teachers/admins to revisit the dress code, reasons for a dress code, and what consequences should be if the code is broken. Make the teens be part of the solution and also be flexible about revisiting rules and punishments. Don't just humor them and revert back to the old regime. Ask them to make arguments for pros and cons so that they're not just railing against authority (a favorite teen past-time).

Right now they don't seem to feel ownership of the community standards you're trying to establish. Let them own some of the responsibility. If they flake or don't take it seriously, tell them that you'll interpret that to mean that they have no quarrel with the current rules and that you'll expect that they won't act out anymore.
posted by quince at 1:28 PM on May 16, 2014 [22 favorites]

My first instinct: Don't! Revise your dress code to eliminate any sexism (which the bare midriff line is). If the kids want to come to school in a bathing suit, let them. Who gives a shit? They'll feel heard. And if you don't want to see someone's thong, don't look.

Another idea: remind them that we do have certain societal standards to which we all adhere as a sign of respect for others, and that you expect them to conduct themselves like the adults they are about to be. Then, let them have some kind of say in what the dress code should be. Ask them what they think is conducive to learning. What would they like to see in a dress code that is respectful for everyone, students and teachers alike? You don't have to accept everything they say, but it's obvious they want some kind of control of a situation that feels out-of-control.

On preview, what quince said.
posted by woodvine at 1:30 PM on May 16, 2014 [7 favorites]

Best answer: You had 4 teenage boys immediately jump in to show solidarity for their female classmate's railing against slut shaming and sexist double standards? That's pretty fantastic.

I think your homework assignment making them part of the process of building codes for their community was a brilliant idea, and yes, thirding what quince said-- do this, and make it real. Making them actually deal with rules themselves (code switching, respecting other people's boundaries, how to eliminate double standards while complying with the law etc) will both empower them and show them that self-determination involves responsibility and work.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 1:38 PM on May 16, 2014 [50 favorites]

If the kids want to come to school in a bathing suit, let them. Who gives a shit? They'll feel heard.

My pragmatic attitude is that one reason schools set formal dress codes -- or mandate uniforms -- is so that students don't set informal dress codes among themselves. Better that they rail against the authority of the school than establish their own little ad hoc hierarchies based upon clothing, whether it's "rich" brands vs "poor" ones, or whatever. (Not that that won't happen even within a dress code, but within school hours, theirs is not the primary code.)

If you want to include them in some kind of conversation, then get them to talk about the kind of judgements they already make about their peers based upon the clothes they wear in and out of school, and how that affects their relationships.
posted by holgate at 1:44 PM on May 16, 2014 [14 favorites]

Making them actually deal with rules themselves (code switching

It doesn't sound like they understand the value of code switching, which is why they have to have a dress code in the first place.

I wonder if there's a way to get that across? ie, we dress certain ways in some circumstances and other ways in different circumstances.
posted by jpe at 1:45 PM on May 16, 2014 [5 favorites]

Because they are going to go out from school into a world that will not put them into detention for a bare midriff. The world is going to fire their ass.

No, not the whole world. But significant portions of it. Youth and school are training grounds for the working adult world. Learning societal norms and how to comply with them when needed is part of it.

And I don't see how No Bare Midriffs is sexist, as long as it applies to all genders alike. If what you listed is the sum total of the dress code I don't think the kids have much to complain about.

You might want to pull up some studies about dress codes, uniforms and behavior. I believe there are some out there showing that schools with uniforms have fewer problems with discipline in general than wchools that don't. Even low income public schools (differentiating here from school with rigid religious rules for example) Don't know if that translates to higher test scores or whatever.
posted by SLC Mom at 1:46 PM on May 16, 2014 [14 favorites]

No matter what you decide, you're going to need to compromise somewhere as a show of good faith. May I suggest the midriff rule goes? I've never understood why a midriff showing is in any way offensive, and I'm an old bat.
posted by sageleaf at 1:53 PM on May 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

FWIW, I think the dress code you set out seems entirely reasonable and conducive to learning. SLC Mom has it: high school is not a no-holds-barred self-expression zone for baring Your True Self. It's training for the workplace, where, no matter how casual, there are certain expectations for dress that generally don't include exposed abdomens and drug branding.

To sell that to them, though, I think you need a "bad cop" to represent the adult working world's relatively rigid dress expectations, so you can play "good cop" and win points by judiciously bending those rules at the students' behest. Maybe set it out for the students as SLC Mom describes: school is training for the workplace. They're all there to learn the kinds of habits and behaviors that will allow them to maximize their potential as gainfully-employed adults, and self-presentation through clothing is one of those behaviors.

Then perhaps do a little discovery lesson by assigning the students themselves to call various real job sites (maybe allow them to choose which employers, while requiring a good spectrum of formal-->informal workplaces?) to poll them about their expectations for employee dress. Subsequently, you can have a sit-down to discuss the variety of rules they found, what the rationales behind those rules might be, and which ones they think are reasonable to import into a classroom setting. I'm guessing pretty much every grown-up employer will rule out bare midriffs and weed T-shirts, so you're probably pretty safe letting the students discover their own answers to this one.
posted by Bardolph at 1:56 PM on May 16, 2014 [11 favorites]

Stop having a dress code.

My experience (as a rebellious yet neurotypical teen):

I attended two different high schools.

School A was a parochial school with a particularly strict dress code (partially due to an administration that reacted to students toeing the line on dress code violations with ever more stringent rules), where enforcement of same was a constant battle. As a teenage girl, being told what color shoelaces I could have, exactly which shades of nail polish were acceptable, etc. drove me crazy, and it was a constant battle between me, the school and my parents. OVER THINGS LIKE GLITTER LIP GLOSS AND INNOCUOUS COSTUME JEWELRY. I was constantly in detention. My parents were not pleased. New rules were added to the dress code specifically to clarify things I, specifically, wasn't allowed to wear. This is not even to get into the constant battle with the general student body over things like skirt length, shirttails being tucked, etc. No matter what the school did, nobody was happy, and it turned a lot of good kids who otherwise followed rules and got good grades into Problem Students.

After two years there, I transferred to School B. School B did not have a dress code aside from, like, "clothes should be worn." Magically, this translated to no epic struggle between teenagers and authority figures! Because controversial attire was not a useful way to push anyone's buttons. Rebelling against the (nonexistent) dress code didn't win you brownie points with your peers or notoriety around campus. Now, you'd think that a school without a dress code would quickly lead to students wearing t-shirts full of cuss words and widespread nudity and I don't know probably rampant drug use and gangs and murder suicide pacts. But it really didn't. Nobody ever dressed that controversially. You'd have the occasional provocatively low-riding jeans on a guy, a pot leaf here or there, but honestly nobody gave a shit and people generally acted like adults. It just 100% was not an issue, because the adults didn't make it an issue.

My takeaway: dress codes are more a way to police teenagers in general and less actually effective at teaching students to dress professionally or whatever the goal is supposed to be.
posted by Sara C. at 1:56 PM on May 16, 2014 [44 favorites]

The reality is that the rules are the rules. In my experience those who tend to appeal to logical arguments in favor or against them are those who would not hassle you about it in the way your students are. You are responding diplomatically to a group who is not behaving in kind. In my opinion it comes down to what consequences are reasonably enforceable. They do not have a choice about whether they go to school and there is nothing morally uncontainable or infringing of rights in your policy. Be polite, don't get angry or argue the point, and have a firm set of leveled punishments that go along with each infraction. The more leverage you have in those punishments the better. I am all for open dialogue and liberal interaction but there are certain instances where it doesn't seem reasonable to do so. It all comes down to firm and fair punishments that negate the desire to rebel against something so inconsequential.
posted by mrdrummed at 1:58 PM on May 16, 2014 [5 favorites]

Best answer: there are certain societal standards to which we all adhere as a sign of respect for others

Here's the problem with this, as it pertains to things like exposed midriffs.

Crop tops are really popular right now. They're in every store and fashion magazine. The trend, like all fashion trends based on the mainstream, is being handed down from above, by designers, style editors, and tastemakers. I can guarantee you that even the most line-toeing "respecting of others" female student at your school probably has a crop top or two that she wears outside of school.

So, this makes you look really, really stupid to all these kids. Because obviously wearing a half-shirt has nothing whatsoever to do with "respecting others". If it was, every damn shirt in Forever 21 wouldn't expose one's midriff. If we all agreed that crop tops were inherently disrespectful to others, your students wouldn't be barraged by them on all sides, largely facilitated by top-down things like what is available in stores and what they're being sold by the media.

If your dress code is going to be "no racial slurs on t-shirts" and maybe also "no exposed genitalia", then, sure, everyone will be able to understand it as a way to be respectful of others. But if you're going to fill your dress code with rules that forbid X and Y flavor of the month fashion trend you can buy at any store (barring a trend for t-shirts with racial slurs of course), you can't couch the dress code as just common courtesy or part of the social contract or whatever.

These kids are not stupid. Treating them like they are stupid is not going to make this any easier.
posted by Sara C. at 2:05 PM on May 16, 2014 [56 favorites]

Jpe, exactly. They don't understand the value of code-switching, or negotiating personal vs professional spaces, or this wouldn't be happening. But I think quince's idea of making them have to figure that out as a way of responding to their concerns was a good one. If they have to sit down with the staff to make a dress code that both addresses their needs and complies with local decency laws, you can move this from "because I said so" (which doesn't sound like it's going to go over well with this particular group of kids) to making the dress code revolt into a teaching moment.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 2:09 PM on May 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

Societal standards change all the time, claiming you're preparing them for the workplace is a really flimsy excuse, by the time they get to the workplace, those things might be "the norm". I don't really see how a teenager in a crop-top is disrespecting others, especially since most of the "other" are her peers. I can see that its not appropriate for all situations - like grandma's funeral but in a school without a uniform, it seems like a really arbitrary line to draw and I think you have more important things to teach them than when it is and isn't appropriate to wear a belly shirt - they have parents, right?

What would be the most effective way to get a gang of angry, emotionally challenged teenagers to understand there's a dress code, it's not asking for much, so please live with it

You can't. Either you have a zero tolerance policy, no arguments or you have a reasoned, adult debate with them and make compromises based on their concerns. It sounds like what you want is for them to feel like they're being heard while you completely ignore all their concerns and stick to your "because I said so" policy, which I think is going to make them even more disenfranchised than they already are now.

IMHO, the only things that should be against the rules are things that are harmful to others (or the student) , things that are illegal and things that disrupt the learning process.
posted by missmagenta at 2:22 PM on May 16, 2014 [13 favorites]

Youth and school are training grounds for the working adult world.

If this is true, why don't we give them courses in unionizing? That's a part of the work world, and it's basically what they're doing.

Listen, it takes about five minutes to learn how to dress for the work world. No kid needs to "train" years for it.

Mr. Vitabellosi suggests having all of the teachers come to work dressed in the most inappropriate clothes possible.

But seriously, what are your options? Why do you have a dress code? Do you ever have "wear what you want" days to relieve some of the tension?

Maybe that's your compromise. In the last 3 weeks of school, Fridays are a wear what you want day.
posted by vitabellosi at 2:22 PM on May 16, 2014 [19 favorites]

they aren't 87 holden caulfields, each one is an individual. high school kids are exquisitely sensitive to condescension and the exercise of power for its own sake alone. could that be the real subject of their rebellion?
posted by bruce at 2:25 PM on May 16, 2014 [13 favorites]

This is a great opportunity to talk about code switching in general and have a frank discussion about prejudice and class in society. This applies to the language people use as well. Knowing how to purposefully code switch can be a HUGE advantage in society, and it is an advantage, frankly, that the kids like you describe can benefit the most from. Not because they'll have to do it their whole lives, but because they already know how to do it in some ways, and should be commended for it (privileged kids are usually much worse at and/or incapable of code switching).

Therefore your discussion could center around ways of code switching they are already familiar with (how they talk when they are with their grandmother / how they dress at church or at a Friday night party versus at work or school) and then invite them to participate in naming the boundaries they are already navigating in each scenario. After they name those boundaries, y'all can talk about the boundaries at school -- how they are already expected to use certain language in the essays they write or in the way they address teachers and why that is (because they are learning how to code switch in a professional manner). Talk about how dress codes are another way to learn to live with the boundaries of different environments.

This is harder than saying I told you so, but you have an opportunity to really open these kids lives to a very real and important sociological phenomenon that will serve them long after they've graduated.

(And I say that as someone who grew up lower class and who has had to learn how to navigate different upper class environments in my adulthood. It's a skill that can be taught / learned, and I wish it was more explicitly discussed with students who have no exposure to different cultural norms outside their immediate community.)
posted by whimsicalnymph at 2:25 PM on May 16, 2014 [15 favorites]

I'm a librarian in a public library and my co-workers have worn bare-midriffs, drug references and shown their underwear. We are still professional and respected by the public as we do our jobs. I had a strict dress code/uniform in school.
posted by saucysault at 2:35 PM on May 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

Hold your ground. Your dress code standards seem entirely reasonable.

There's nothing sexist about a bare midriff rule that is applied equal to male and female students. Female students who want to wear crop tops can wear a bodysuit (which Forever 21 sells, btw) underneath and still comply.

I went to a school that required a full uniform (think sailor moon in more muted colours) and I cannot even imagine the horrors of going through middle/high school trying to keep up with the latest fashions.

You're doing right by these kids, but maybe someone needs to have a talk with them about what real slut-shaming actually is.
posted by sparklemotion at 2:36 PM on May 16, 2014 [18 favorites]

Mod note: Folks, at this point, let's limit answers to "how to talk to the students about this." The OP does not suggest that the question "should we have a dress code at all" is on the table.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 2:37 PM on May 16, 2014 [7 favorites]

Sorry, but every place in society has rules. Your rules are quite lenient. They can wear their bare midriffs and shirts with alcohol on it on the weekends, the evenings, and holidays.

School is not a free zone. You aren't doing them any favors. Actions have consequences and children with disabilities need to learn that. I work with cognitively impaired students and they aren't allowed to masturbate at school, or not wear a shirt even if that is what they want.

As educators, we have to have policies that aren't popular but are important.

I would re-evaluate the consequences. Have the students be a part of it, but also teachers, parents, and administrators. And everyone who breaks the rules should face the consequences - that is how my high school effectively stopped the reckless student prank. Yeah people complained but they got over it.
posted by Aranquis at 2:48 PM on May 16, 2014 [6 favorites]

Are there any safety concerns? Flip flops/open toed shoes are the example that springs to mind. I don't think you should make requirements that don't have a logical safety reasoning behind them. I think presenting the safety issues as non- negotiables but offering to workshop dress code rules other than that with the students is probably your best option.

To my mind, problematic speech (tshirt with a drug reference or racial slur) is a speech/mutual respect issue, not a dress code issue. Presumably you already have a different conduct policy that relates to specific conduct like saying or displaying racist/inflammatory/sexist things and starting fights, and that's the policy that applies here, not the dress code. You could reference the respectful conduct policy as part of the dress code, which would take care of 2/3rds of what you've stated here. You could also discuss respectful conduct as part of the school atmosphere and how you/the administration feels disrespected by crop tops and so forth, and come to some kind of understanding with the students. (I would let that go, honestly. I would specify that the bikini area must be covered by all students, closed-toed shoes, and leaave it at that unless someone is taking shop and needs more coverage for safety. Pick your battles.)
posted by blnkfrnk at 2:53 PM on May 16, 2014

Response by poster: These kids are not stupid. Treating them like they are stupid is not going to make this any easier.

I don't think I am treating them like they're stupid. As soon as they registered their complaint I explained how they could articulate their concerns with the administrative team and promised to meet with them the NEXT school day. How is that treating them like they're stupid?

And while I appreciate that some people have professional jobs where they wear clothing with drug references, I have many students struggling with sobriety and out of respect for those kids, I would prefer if their peers didn't wear clothing extolling the virtues of illegal activity. These kids are constantly struggling to remain clean and are in and out of rehab; they don't need to see peers wearing that stuff and out of respect for their struggle, I'd like to see their peers support them in this way.
posted by kinetic at 3:00 PM on May 16, 2014 [29 favorites]

I assume the students vastly outnumber the staff?In these situations, you can control them through fear or respect.
you've given them homework to write down their concerns so you can discuss them. They're giving up their free time to work on this because they think you're giving them a chance to be heard and to be treated like adults. they will think that if their arguments are eloquent enough, you will change the dress code. it sounds like you have no intention of doing that and this discussion is purely to tell them that they're wrong and they have to comply, even though you can't even give us good reasons why they should. I'm not saying you should give them everything they want but if they come to you with well formed, reasoned arguments that are better than yours and you give them nothing, any respect they might have for you is gone out the window. then all you have left is fear, but kids aren't stupid, they know it's not practical for you to put them all in detention - so what will you do if they all show up with bare midrifts? They've already shown willingness to rebel in solidarity with another student, if that spreads, you could have a totally out of control situation on your hands.

you should have stuck to your guns but you didn't, pleading with them to behave and accept the rules ' just because', is not going to work. you've put yourself in a weak position but if you handle it right, you could actually gain their respect.
posted by missmagenta at 3:03 PM on May 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

This is a really difficult one that sounds like a logistical nightmare. My tuppence worth - (went to both a uniformed and no uniformed school) - creativity and individuality is good (who could ever get teens to stop obsessing over appearance) but so are boundaries.

You don't want to spend the rest of your career losing energy in this war, then again the school has a boundary that sounds pretty reasonable and to go back on that now wouldn't be good and would set a precedent I think. My understanding is that when kids act out like this they are also seeking 'you' to be strong enough to hold them. Try not to engage in their drama.. hard though.

Few thoughts - could a rough diamond come in/ someone hip who's 'come good' to talk about this in a way they could connect with?

I used to work in eating disorders where clothes shopping is a struggle for the patients - one day we got them to bring in clothes that were important to them and talk about them.. could be some scope to do something with this?? Not sure how.. different types of clothes... what they are good for.. one good thing about uniform is it can help protect people and can be a bit of an equaliser.. (ok 2 things!)

What about a bit of general boundaries work.. look up the personal space norms in US.. consider different cultures.. talk about them and why they exist.. think about contexts they change in and why and why that's ok... get them to stand in pairs go a bit closer... and a bit closer.. (you might even get a laugh out of them with this) does it feel weird? Why... ?

Talk about different kinds of boundaries maybe.. but my god does it sound like you have your work cut out for you.
posted by tanktop at 3:04 PM on May 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

The student went off on a rant. About freedom to wear what she wants, about ridiculous rules, about her personal rights, about choosing to not participate in slut shaming and rape culture.

When I read this bit, I thought about this 17-year-old who was kicked out of her prom for wearing a dress that was supposedly too short. It made the news, and it sounds like the kids are aware of it. I think you may need to address it, or at least have a heads up.
posted by kitcat at 3:04 PM on May 16, 2014 [6 favorites]

Agree.. they have to get something for their efforts of writing this up etc.. could one of them be a mediator or a chair or is that crazy (I don't work with kids btw!).. Try and think about all the things they are trying to communicate with their actions.. behaviour always has a motivation.. reflect it back maybe "I think what you are saying is x.. because of y?" Then maybe a talk on how else that could be chanelled??? Your post is very idea generating!!
posted by tanktop at 3:10 PM on May 16, 2014

Teenagers can be surprisingly smart about rules if they feel they have actual input. You can consider trying whatever their rules are (if they are reasonable, as they probably will be) for the next 3 weeks and then meet again to discuss how it goes, with the understanding that if their dress code causes problems it will be back to this one.

If you want to keep the no-drug policy, your explanation is totally sensible, and I think that if you gave it they would understand.
posted by jeather at 3:16 PM on May 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Does your school have a student council? If so, can you ask their help in collaboratively drafting a dress code whose separate parts can be voted on by the larger student body?

Alternatively, can you share copies of the dress code from a few local employers and talk about how yours reflects these "real world" examples?
posted by spunweb at 3:20 PM on May 16, 2014

I think your example of supporting students trying to stay clean is a really good reason that you should share with all students. I think the mutual respect aspect is important- you feel that a certain standard is reasonable to expect while students feel disrespected when that conflicts with their self - expression. Try getting a dialogue going on mutual respect and hammering out a policy together.

Or you could invest in enormous tshirts that the office holds for coverups. That is the only strategy that worked at my middle school -- follow the dress code, wear the enormous tshirt tent, or detention/in-school suspension.
posted by blnkfrnk at 3:22 PM on May 16, 2014 [5 favorites]

Yeah, there's a lot of social media traction right now about dress codes that are unfairly gendered -- one of my friends is dealing with this with her junior high school daughter right now, where the girls are prohibited from wearing tank tops and have their shorts length policed while the boys don't, on account of how it's "a distraction." What the language means is that the girls are required to cover up so that they don't distract the boys, and that frankly is kind of shitty.

So the first thing I'd do is, look at your dress code. Is it gendered? Does it use language like "distraction" about the girls' clothing? Is there any expectation, implicit or explicit, that it's girls' responsibility to avoid tempting other students? Because if there is, then the students have a point, to be honest. Particularly if the "midriff bearing" part of the dress code only applies to girls.

If you don't believe that that's an issue, then yeah, sit down with the students and ask for their input. What do they think the role of a dress code should be? Can they imagine any clothing that should be outside it? What are their issues with the dress code as written?
posted by KathrynT at 3:23 PM on May 16, 2014 [21 favorites]

> These kids are constantly struggling to remain clean and are in and out of rehab; they don't need to see peers wearing that stuff and out of respect for their struggle, I'd like to see their peers support them in this way.

This sounds like a really good teaching moment for how your personal expression can impact others.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 3:25 PM on May 16, 2014 [10 favorites]

Also, don't condescend to your students by assuming they have no experience in the work place. Many probably have full or part time jobs-- and these jobs may not have strict dress codes or may have REALLY strict dress codes that your students chafe against. Regardless, use this as an opportunity to take about dressing for the job and life you want, vs. dressing for school-as-work.
posted by spunweb at 3:25 PM on May 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I'm willing to change anything unreasonable and I want the kids to feel heard and valued. I've worked with them on conduct rules before and this type of discussion can have some good results.

Everyone is okay with the no drug/alcohol references. My kids are loud and screechy but they care for each other.

If it helps, the first thing the kids brought up was this article, where the main point is, "We live in a culture that tells boys it’s OK to shed clothing in the heat in order to be more comfortable, but tells girls that their comfort is secondary to how others perceive them."

However, our dress code is absolutely not gender biased and it does not tell boys it's ok to shed clothing.

In fact, the no bare midriff rule was originally written so young men would wear shirts. Apparently until that rule, there would be arguing over what defined a "shirt," and it was felt back then that by saying no bare midriffs, the men would wear shirts without arguing. Our boys are NOT allowed to take off their shirts.

I love these kids. I want them to feel valued. I want them to learn to articulate their ideas clearly and without being inarticulate schreechmonsters. I want them to learn that with a reasoned argument and valid points, they can change things. But screaming "RAPECULTURENAZI" will not get them far.
posted by kinetic at 3:41 PM on May 16, 2014 [21 favorites]

It would also be very valuable for them to learn mature, constructive ways to express themselves. If they want to be treated like adults, they need to act like adults, and yelling at you is not the way for them to gain credibility. Teenagers are cut some slack, since they're still in development, but they will be punished mightily in the adult world if they can't learn to get control of their emotions.

Maybe a do-over would help? They could be encouraged to express their concerns calmly, in whatever form they see fit: a petition, letter to the school board, etc.?
posted by ravioli at 3:47 PM on May 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Based on your followup about wanting to not have pot leaves, etc on shirts in support of those in sobriety, make your message to the students that of support. That having a dress code encourages support by removing triggers for others (pot leaves for substance abusers in rehab, overly sexualized dress for rape victims, etc).

And where it comes to it, they know the rules for indecent exposure via the law. Tell them that no midriffs is how you interpret ensuring breasts are properly covered, and in order to not be sexist and participate in slut shaming, it applies to boys too.
posted by skittlekicks at 3:47 PM on May 16, 2014

I've never heard of rape victims being triggered by over sexualized dress. I'm pretty sure teenagers will be smart enough to call you on strained logic if you try that one.

If teenagers are regularly trying to come to class shirtless or with their bellies bared I wonder if it might be too hot in the school building. Anyway, I think you probably really need to hear them out and their concerns because I'm struggling to see how "not showing someone your midriff" is a sign of respect for them. And I'm a grown-up.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:58 PM on May 16, 2014 [5 favorites]

These kids are constantly struggling to remain clean and are in and out of rehab

That might sound a lot like you adults trying to dodge the backlash and offer up those students with known drug issues as targets instead. Beware.
posted by ryanrs at 3:58 PM on May 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

I think I would start adding education to the detentions. It would cover ideas like "The best way to sexualize something is to cover it up and keep it covered." I would talk about how Victorians had long table clothes to cover the legs of their tables because table legs were too sexy. I think I would talk about the history of clothing and how war has impacted it (we went from hoop skirts with multiple layers to the flapper era due to WWI practically overnight) and just all kinds of counterintuitive cultural factoids.

Basically, I would educate them that a) every classic, conservative dance was once overly sexual and scandalous in its day in part because b) meaning is contextual and c) if you think you are making yourself sexy by baring all, you should study Mae West and what not and learn that you are merely cheapening yourself.

I wouldn't try to convince them they should go along because "I told you so." I would try to convince them they should go along out of enlightened self interest and because a lot of the clap trap they believe is just that: clap trap.

There is a Simpsons episode where Bart gets an earring to be rebellious. His sister makes a remark about how it is individualistic "just like all the other rebels" or something like that. His dad is mad and says it dishonors the family's proud naval heritage. My point: Most teens, in trying to be rebellious and individualistic, are really just acting like lemmings. I would show them how ironic that is and help them become real individuals.

I hope that makes some sense.
posted by Michele in California at 4:13 PM on May 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Wow - Your students seem awesome, intelligent, opinionated, smart, and passionate. Like you say, it does sound like they really care for each other.

The bare midriff rule, whether or not it was originally written so that boys would wear shirts, is clearly not being enforced that way. Thus here you have an example of a rule that is being reinforced for the rule's sake, and not following the original intent of the rule.

Why don't you have a meeting with the students, and the student council, and propose to modify that bare midriff rule? Go through a discussion of what a dress code means, why it may or may not important. Share understandings about what the role of clothing is, and how it affects how we are seen by other people, and how that is something we should be or not be aware of. Compare it to free speech.

And after that, follow through and revise that rule to one that both the students and faculty agree with.

Please don't unilaterally shut them down. It sounds like you don't want that anyways. If you do, they'll just learn that they're being told that they're powerless, their voices and agency don't mean anything, and that they're ultimately being disrespected and disregarded as individuals. High school is not "training for the workplace", and it's not the case that "the rules are the rules".

If I was a high school student and my high school went through a collaborative decision process, I would learn a lot of things - namely, how to stand for your rights, how to support each other, how to work with others, how to understand another person (the principal, you), and come to an agreement. I'd imagine that I would have an incredible optimism about dealing with things in the future, and next time I have a disagreement with anyone, would be actively constructive in trying to come to a solution, rather than being angry and lashing out.

They won't act like adults until people start treating them like adults.
posted by suedehead at 4:43 PM on May 16, 2014 [4 favorites]

Compared to other schools' dress codes, yours is quite lenient, and it couldn't hurt to point that out to the students - perhaps showing them examples of stricter ones from other schools. This could also help them understand how your code isn't gendered.

But when it comes down to the situation on the ground, there has to be some kind of consequence for going off on a teacher like that, especially when the teacher is going out of her way to act in a manner that any teacher I ever had in my entire educational career would have seen as overly deferential to the student. I can understand listening to the student's concerns, and I think it's great, but when it crosses a certain line it stops being about the dress code infraction and becomes a behavior that needs to be addressed for its own sake.

Maybe you could have one day a month where students who have done something to earn it can have the privilege of wearing a more relaxed dress code. But that privilege wouldn't be available to someone who deliberately broke a rule and then threw a temper tantrum when she got civilly called out on it.

There's plenty of research out there on the benefits of school dress codes and even uniforms, but the people who don't want them, don't want them, and I doubt anything is going to change that. I know you say you prefer to get them to want to do it rather than accept that they're not quite adults yet and it's not 100% their decision to make, so I widh you the best of luck.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:08 PM on May 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

Could you offer to hold regular, once a term, meetings with the student body about their concerns? And state you have an open door policy to listen and/or explain anything. Much like the mods here do. If you're annoyed, before going to metatalk(yelling in the hallway), email a mod..flag and move on... let them be heard, to give you feedback...and for you to be transparent too.
posted by taff at 6:08 PM on May 16, 2014

Response by poster: taff: "Could you offer to hold regular, once a term, meetings with the student body about their concerns? And state you have an open door policy to listen and/or explain anything."

I do that.

The Underpants Monster: "I can understand listening to the student's concerns, and I think it's great, but when it crosses a certain line it stops being about the dress code infraction and becomes a behavior that needs to be addressed for its own sake."

Kids who scream at staff, for whatever reason, do receive a regulated response. There are consequences for choosing to screech.
posted by kinetic at 6:17 PM on May 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm a teacher, and a man, and I've had a change of heart in recent months over dress codes, because I've seen a few articles in which it was argued convincingly that dress codes tend to hold girls responsible for boys' thoughts about them, that they cause girls to sexualize themselves by forcing them to consider whether their clothing is provocative while they may otherwise be choosing the clothing because it's comfortable or self-expressive or what have you, and because enforcement tends to be subjective with the brunt of the enforcement falling on girls who are more developed.

The girl who is talking about slut shaming and rape culture in conjunction with dress codes is making a point that feminist authors are making in the blogosphere.

It comes across as dismissive to call it ranting, and when you say, "I also don't want to see anyone's thong. Or belly button piercing," I think you're clearly acting entitled to having girls modify the way they present their bodies to conform to your personal preferences, while the more appropriate standpoint would be one that's child-centered.

Also, they don't have much of a choice about being in school, while you do. There's an argument to be made that the rules shouldn't necessarily be the same as at their future jobs because you can always quit your job, and because schools have a responsibility to help students figure out who they want to be that workplaces don't.

I'm bringing this up not to recommend abandoning the dress code, but to examine the ways in which you may not be approaching this issue from a standpoint of impartiality, and may be inadvertently bringing some baggage into this that you really need to see and own before having a meaningful discussion.

I would suggest that in addition to whatever decision you make about the dress code, that you acknowledge the thorny gender issues here and provide more education about it and opportunities for dialogue outside the context of the dress code.
posted by alphanerd at 6:26 PM on May 16, 2014 [12 favorites]

Response by poster: alphanerd: "It comes across as dismissive to call it ranting, and when you say, "I also don't want to see anyone's thong. Or belly button piercing," I think you're clearly acting entitled to having girls modify the way they present their bodies to conform to your personal preferences, while the more appropriate standpoint would be one that's child-centered."

To clarify, I am 100% NOT talking about girls. We have transgendered students and staff and are highly sensitive to sexism and body issues and in no way do we have any single dress code that speaks specifically to any gender. None. We have boys with belly button rings and boys who wear thongs. I am not picking out the girls from my entitled position.

And having spent years working with highly wrought teenagers with severe emotional issues and extreme issues with self-regulation, I will firmly stick with the word "ranting," and the ranting is dealt with as a separate issue from the dress code.

Some of my teenagers rant. It's not dismissive; it's accurate.
posted by kinetic at 6:47 PM on May 16, 2014 [14 favorites]

Best answer: I hope I'm not making assumptions, but it sounds like the problem isn't so much the students' stances but that they are in an emotional disability sped program, and so this political/policy discussion is causing a lot of drama and meltdowns? But from all of your clarifications, it actually sounds like you're doing a good job of addressing this already. You sound like an incredibly positive environment:

- the students without substance abuse problems have the backs of the students who are struggling
- the boys are aware of the feminist issues wrt: dress codes that have been going around online in their age group and support the female students
- you have weekly check-ins with the group

It sounds like you are really set on having SOME kind of student dress code beyond "don't show up naked," and like you're already taking steps to work with the students on hammering one out. If they showed you the article about gendered dress codes, I wonder how much of this is blossoming political awareness-- if they're so angry about this issue in general, and not just the way it manifests (or they perceive it as manifesting) at their school. So maybe that could be a focus of the discussion-- be proactive about your school not being part of this social problem. Go through the existing dress code with them, make it 100% clear that it's not discriminatory, and rework phrasing as necessary if that's *not* clear. At the very least, you'll end up with a bulletproof non-sexist dress code. And I wonder if they might be more amenable to the idea of a dress code, in general, if it was one that they themselves had input on and agreed was reasonable.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 7:15 PM on May 16, 2014 [7 favorites]

Is it possible that the code is being unfairly enforced by some staff? That pops to mind with the way you're talking about the genderedness of the rules compared to how the kids are talking. You say it is universally worded but is the enforcement the same? That could be part of the issue and part of the discussion.
posted by geek anachronism at 9:09 PM on May 16, 2014 [7 favorites]

What's the staff's dress code?

Based on my own experiences there probably isn't a written code explicitly stating all the dress code rules that would apply to teachers and staff. It's probably left to administration to point out if a staff member is dressing inappropriately (probably extremely rare and only after a long term trend).

If you're going to have principals and staff enforcing rules on the way students dress as well as behave (which I think is entirely reasonable), there can't be too much harm in letting students codify rules for the staff. Teenagers genuinely participating in good faith (and not out of some sort of revenge) would probably have way more lax rules than what is probably floating around in your head as to appropriate dress codes for teachers, so I doubt it'd affect staff much if at all.

If you do have some sort of written rules for staff's clothing, maybe break it out for the students (and to be honest, most of the staff who've probably never bothered reading it) to take a look at (and perhaps revise / update with everyone's input).

There probably aren't any students who have issues with the way teachers dress, but there might be some general rules that might be applicable to teachers (which are codified for students). Some examples I can think of off the top of my head: strong scents (whether it be from cologne / perfume, tobacco, poor hygeine leading to body odour, bad breath), maybe personal space when helping students 1 on 1, the official times a teacher is supposed to be at school, perhaps if a teacher is always losing their temper and yelling, unkept hair or facial hair, constant use of profanity, etc.

I don't think coming up with a dress code (and probably more applicable a code of conduct), would affect staff very much at all, but it might be helpful for your students to realize staff have to follow rules (and allow students input on those rules).
posted by calgary at 3:22 AM on May 17, 2014

But here's the thing: the rationale behind the dress code is that there are certain societal standards to which we all adhere as a sign of respect for others.

Right, but they are within the group of "others" and they are telling you that they do not consider their desired attire disrespectful of anything, so I'd drop this argument because it's a poor argument.

I think the better way to approach this is that one of the goals of education is to prepare students for the next phase of their lives with some basic life skills. Any workplace, from McDonald's to a bank to a stip joint, is going to have a workplace dress code and the ability to adhere to that is a lifeskill.

You could ask them to stage a debate ("School Mandated Dress Codes: For and Against") and at the end you could ask them to draft a dress code themselves, one that is gender neutral and that engenders the environment they think is appropriate to classroom learning.

Also, I think these kids need a module on what rape culture actually is, but yay for the young woman who was able to connect the dots to slut shaming.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:57 AM on May 17, 2014

Mod note: A couple of comments deleted. Folks, the question isn't "what do you think about dress codes, or double standards in clothing, or how young women dress". It's, given that there is a dress code, how to talk to/work with the students on this.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 9:17 AM on May 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

I wonder if part of the problem is that the female staff member "pulled the student aside 1:1" but still did so in front of other students (hence the public reaction). I imagine the student was embarrassed, which could be part of the reason she felt that the rule was slut shaming.

I'd suggest calling students in violation of the rule into an office or classroom to discuss it. That avoids embarrassment, and also avoids public outcries.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:01 AM on May 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: PhoBWanKenobi: "I wonder if part of the problem is that the female staff member "pulled the student aside 1:1" but still did so in front of other students (hence the public reaction)."

No way. We're a therapeutic school and my staff knows how to work with this special group of kids We would never call kids out publicly. No other kids heard or saw anything.

Like I said before, some of my students can rant. Also, it was a high pollen count day so many kids were falling apart in general. But no public shaming ever.
posted by kinetic at 3:10 PM on May 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

But here's the thing: the rationale behind the dress code is that there are certain societal standards to which we all adhere as a sign of respect for others.

I'm not sure the kids buy this.

The reasons for the no-drug and no-booze logos/words policies make sense.

The mid-riff/'underwear' rule seems arbitrary, and the kids know this. The fact that you came here to try to get a way to help explain/justify this is a sign that it's an arbitrary one.

I don't want to spend too much time trying to get across a point which ultimately comes down to societal rules and "because I said so."

I would say there aren't actual societal rules about this, merely school rules. It really does boil down to 'because I said so.' The kids will have to learn at some point that arbitrary rules that don't have logical sense will be imposed upon them, and there will be punishments for not complying.

I wouldn't try explaining how this is fair or just, but rather acknowledge that it is arbitrary, but that doesn't change the fact that they must do what you tell them to.

I also don't want to see anyone's thong. Or belly button piercing.

If the code is there to prevent you from being disgusted, I assure you that teenage fashion will continue to be disturbing, even within the constraints you impose (remember neon spandex anyone?).
posted by el io at 3:11 PM on May 17, 2014

It doesn't sound like it wasn't public, if other students were able to see and comment on it.
posted by spunweb at 7:48 PM on May 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: It doesn't sound like it wasn't public, if other students were able to see and comment on it.

I said in the original post that she had been pulled aside 1:1. She had.

Other kids didn't see it. After she was spoken with, she ran into the halls screaming to anyone who was within earshot. It's a small school; word spread quickly.
posted by kinetic at 2:21 PM on May 22, 2014

My 21 year old co-worker wrote denim miniskirts and exposed bra straps to work ask the time. Everyone treated her like a teenager. High school is where adults should be teaching the kids that the way they dress will dictate how others treat them (as clothing is a semiotic system and tells others about who you are, your values, etc).
posted by custard heart at 4:51 PM on June 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

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