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The Case for Strictly Enforced Dress Codes in Schools: Part Two

By Mike Knox

One classic example is a school that bans the use of blue or red colored bandanas.  The school wants to prevent gang violence on and around the campus and buys into the “out of sight, out of mind” theory.  In other words, if no bandanas are seen there will be no gangs on campus.  It is convenient for the school administrators but not necessarily conducive to educating the offending child.  Typically, such a ban does nothing to eliminate gangs on campus.

Those gang members who continue to wear the offending items are targeted for discipline and ultimately removed from the campus for a short period of time.  Typically gang members simply decide to alter their identifier to some other item not banned by the school.  For instance instead of bandanas, they may decide to wear blue or red beads laced into their tennis shoes, or hair, to indicate their affiliation.  Now the school has to ban colored beads.  Gang members simply adjust their emblems of membership each time the school bans an item.  The cycle continues and becomes quite tedious.

The school expends way too much time and energy attempting to enforce an increasingly ponderous set of regulations.  The staff and administration become weary of fighting a never-ending battle and violations begin to be overlooked.  Finally, the dress code is only invoked in “special cases” for the convenience of the administration, i.e. documenting rules violations in preparation for suspension or expulsion of particularly disruptive students.  The dress code has become an arbitrary enforcement tool and completely ineffective for its original purpose, to promote education.

A well written, easily enforceable, unchanging dress code, which can be effectively used in any public school environment, requires an adjustment in the perception of public education goals. Rather than a list of potential violations, a proper dress code should be constructed around the idea that the dress code is an important teaching tool.

A school focusing on its responsibility to train good citizens will recognize enforcing a dress code is an important training opportunity for the student.  The dress code, in such a school, becomes a continuation of a schools commitment to educating and training students to be successful in the real world.

Schools subscribing to the citizenship-training model recognize dress standards are an integral part of the work force, in which these students will be expected to participate someday, and it is not, therefore, unreasonable for the school to acclimate their students to this concept.  Parents of students attending these kinds of schools are educated as well about the necessity and importance of the dress code.  Both students and parents should be told why violations will not be tolerated.  Typically, parents are relieved to have an ally they can use to assist them in moderating their child’s appearance.  

Occasionally a parent will argue their child should be allowed to express themselves creatively through their clothing choices.  One successful argument, in defense of the dress code, is to agree with the parent that self-expression is important and that the parent should encourage the child to express themselves, with clothing, to their hearts content, after school.  However, the school has a responsibility to teach children skills for success.  One very important work skill is the ability to accept and adhere to standardized rules of conduct and appearance.

Perhaps the most important benefit of a quality dress code is psychological.  We all dress differently depending on our goals.  We do not dress for recreation when we go to work and we do not dress for work when we are involved in recreation.

If a child dresses to attend school in the same clothing they would wear to play, they are not preparing, psychologically, to work.  Requiring a student to dress substantially different while attending school is to train the child about the importance of dress in the work place.  The child begins to associate the dress standard at school with academic work, mentally focusing on attending school, as opposed to recreational socializing.  Later, they will be prepared to habitually dress for success in the workplace.

Effective dress codes are possible

A successful dress code should be very specific and leave little to personal interpretation by the student or adult. The effective dress code should clearly state the manner in which the clothing shall be worn and should apply to both male and female students.  

The dress code should clearly state the acceptable style and material of shirts, pants, shorts, or dresses and should prohibit any item of clothing with advertising or slogans, including name brand identifiers.  The only exception to the prohibition of name brands, logos or messages, would be those items with school logos or symbols of the school attended by the child, which have been approved by the school administration.

Personally, I recommend a unisex approach to dress codes, as the variety of feminine attire is staggering and requires a great deal of energy to enforce.  Further, by eliminating the dress and skirt from the school dress code, modesty regulations become moot, effectively eliminating the need to define hem lengths, the amount of exposed midriff, plunging necklines, halter-tops, tube tops, and exposed undergarments.  

The ultimate dress code is the school uniform 

A school uniform provides financial, physical safety, and psychological benefits to the students, and parents.  As with any good dress code, it helps the school set the environmental focus on good behavior and citizenship.

Requiring a school uniform provides financial relief to parents, particularly in low to middle income neighborhoods.  It often costs less to purchase and entire weeks worth of school uniform clothes than two days worth of stylish and popular name brand clothing items.

The school uniform is an equalizer and removes the distraction of wealth competition among students.  The wealthy child is dressed in the same manner as the poor student.   Therefore, there is less attention to style and more attention directed toward developing relationships based on individual characteristics than on socio-economic status.  Many schools report using uniforms results in a significant reduction in student against student violence, general misconduct, and the severity of rules violation among their students.

From a safety standpoint, the school uniform provides an immediate visual verification as to whether or not a school age child belongs on a particular campus.  Occasionally, students, looking for trouble, will appear on another campus to seek out rivals.  A school uniform permits teachers, staff, and students to quickly recognize intruders and prevent uncontested access to their school by students from other schools.

From an administrative point of view, the uniform is the most easily enforced form of dress code.  Either the child is within the uniform requirement or they are not.  There is little need for discussion.  The standardization of clothing increases the ability of each teacher, or administrator, to effectively enforce the dress code.  Consistent enforcement of the dress code quickly creates a stable environment for the student.  Once mastered, students and teachers need spend little time or attention on appearance and can focus on education and training.

We all want safer schools.  We want our children to learn confidence.  We want their futures to be full of possibilities.  Instead of focusing on the end goal perhaps we should focus more on the little details and let the larger goal take care of itself.  The little detail of a well organized and enforced dress code will go a long way in helping that student achieve their life goals.