As Oumou Kaba walked into her Bronx high school last year, school administrators stopped her. Her ripped jeans violated the dress code, they told her.
“The school administrator went into the storage room, and she found a piece of cardboard,” Oumou said during a congressional panel last month. “She cut it up and started taping pieces of cardboard box to every piece of my body that they deemed a distraction to the learning environment.”
What happened to Oumou highlights how dress code policies can vary across the city, and how students may be disciplined for violating them – or pushing back, as Oumou did. She was suspended for refusing to wear the cardboard, according to Girls For Gender Equity, where Oumou later volunteered.
Now, the issue has grabbed the attention of Brooklyn City Council member Brad Lander, who plans to introduce a bill Thursday requiring the education department to report on every public school’s dress codes and any disciplinary actions related to those rules.
Lander’s efforts come on the heels of a new report showing many city middle and high schools are violating existing rules that say dress codes to apply “equally to all students regardless of gender and must be free of gender stereotypes.” Instituting a policy that prohibits “distracting” clothing or bans clothing that is typically associated with one gender, such as a mini skirt, would not be permitted.
“So obviously, a young person shouldn’t wear a shirt that has white supremacist symbols or Nazi flags or clothing that would allow them to slip and fall really easily,” said Ashley Sawyer, policy director at Girls For Gender Equity, which is pushing for changes to school dress code policies. “But outside of those concrete, really objective things, there is no reason to police what children are wearing.”
Girls for Gender Equity’s new report revealed dozens of schools out of 100 public-facing school policies appear to directly contradict the education department’s guidance against singling out one gender. For example, 27 policies specifically banned mini skirts and 27 banned “distracting dress.” Fifty-five school dress code policies banned crop tops, 38 banned halter tops, 33 banned short shorts, and 28 banned tube tops, according to the report. The report did not name the schools.
Moreover, the report noted, disciplinary actions for these codes also varied in severity. Just over half of these schools had specific consequences, such as calling parents, requiring students to change their clothes, and taking students out of class. One school requires students to wear a “dress code violation” tag. Eight of the dress codes threaten suspension, according to the report, even though the education department does not allow schools to suspend students or remove them from class for failing to follow a uniform policy.
While the group does not believe schools should “police” what students wear, Sawyer acknowledged that following gender-neutral rules — such as banning clothes that reveal one’s torso — would be fairer. More concerning, she said, were anecdotes of educators saying that dress code policies help prevent sexual harassment.
“Whatever the intent, dress codes will never prevent sexual harassment; instead, policing student attire to ‘prevent’ sexual violence perpetuates rape culture,” the report said.
For Lander, the report provided “clarity that the [education department] is not addressing this issue, and allowing it to continue in plain sight,” he said.
The education department plans to review Lander’s bill and has been in touch with Girls For Gender Equity on “mutual priorities,” though it is unclear whether that includes dress codes.
“Our schools must be welcoming environments free from discrimination, and we prohibit gender-based dress codes at all schools,” said Miranda Barbot, a spokesperson for the department, in a statement. “There are citywide guidelines on dress codes, and we empower schools to establish dress codes within those guidelines that best support their students.”
Lander became keenly aware of the issue four years ago, when his daughter Rosa protested what she described as gender-discriminatory dress code policies at a Park Slope middle school.
Rosa, now a junior in high school, said she was admonished by school officials for wearing shorts that were too short. But she began to protest with a large group of students because school officials did not allow girls to wear T-shirts that said “Feminist” on them. They got the administration’s attention, but Rosa believes it might have been a different story if her school community was less affluent or the policies largely affected students of color.
“It’s a really rich and majority-white neighborhood in which the PTA’s involvement carries a lot of weight,” she said in an interview.
The Girls for Gender Equity report calls for removing subjective school policies – rules that are left up to the discretion of educators or administrators in a building. One such rule highlighted in the report: “Hairstyles that are disruptive to the educational process are prohibited.” One high school’s policy stated, “Anything that is deemed inappropriate by the staff is inappropriate.”
No publicly available data currently exists to show how students of different genders and races are being disciplined for violating dress code policies. When it comes to discipline generally, black students in and beyond New York City are more likely to receive harsher punishments for committing the same infractions as students of other races.
One report, studying data from 2011-2012, found that black girls made up more than half of all girls who were disciplined in New York City, even though they made up one-third of all girls. Just 5% of the disciplined girls were white. In a 2017 study, black girls were found to be more than twice as likely to be suspended in every state — and researchers blamed a bulk of that on racist or sexist ideas educators have about black girls.
Lander’s bill would require an annual report detailing policies at all city public schools, with the first one due this August. It would have to include whether each school has disciplinary consequences for violating the dress code policy and whether the policy distinguishes between gender and gender presentation, defined as how someone chooses to present themselves. In addition, the report would include the number of disciplinary infractions that a school has issued because of the dress code, related disciplinary actions, and what gender that student identifies with.
Ideally, Lander wants the education department to create a uniform dress code policy that is “inclusive and equitable” to all students, including transgender and gender-non-conforming students. He will introduce a separate resolution calling for such a move.
“I don’t have any doubt about the chancellor or City Hall or senior leadership’s values — you know, the values they hold in gender equity,” Lander said. “And the fact that the practice, as the Girls for Gender Equity survey shows, is not achieving or living with or aligned to those values is an opportunity to take a really good step forward.”
Lander acknowledged that getting school leaders to relinquish their power so far as dress codes are concerned could be a tough sell. He said there are probably ways to craft a policy from the top that is more inclusive of all genders, but still gives schools a few different options in setting their own rules.
Mark Cannizzaro, president of the city’s principals union, said legislation on this topic was “unnecessary,” and that families can already raise concerns about their specific school’s dress code.
“School leaders, in conjunction with their School Leadership Teams, have traditionally and successfully developed inclusive dress codes for their communities,” Cannizzaro said in a statement.