Washburn Rural High School Junior Mackenzie Smith speaks to the Auburn Washburn USD 437 school board meeting on September 7. (YouTube capture/Kansas Reflector)
The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Linda Ditch has been a freelance writer for two decades.
School dress codes have often been lightning rods for student discontent. But are they sexist?
A recent article in the New York Times highlighted a 2020 study that found most dress codes analyzed targeted female clothing choices far more than male ones. Some clothing was prohibited simply because it was seen as sexy.
This concept came to light recently at Washburn Rural High School, just south of Topeka in Shawnee County. On Sept. 3, female students protested the dress code by wearing prohibited clothing. Most wore tank tops, some with sayings such as, “My body, my choice.” As they walked into the building, staff sent them to the auditorium.
Junior Mackenzie Smith shared her experience while speaking at the Auburn Washburn USD 437 school board meeting the following Tuesday. She noted about 30 students were brought into the auditorium and threatened with detention. Her boyfriend, Christian Ryan, gave her a sweatshirt to put on, but she was still detained. He told the board that some young men also protested by wearing prohibited clothing such as pajama pants and crop tops, but he only heard of one being reprimanded.
“I personally believe that it’s not fair to cherry-pick women as we walk into the school and be treated unfairly in such a way,” Smith said.
The portion of the dress code causing the most significant issue states, “The final determination as to whether clothing is acceptable or not will be made by the administration. The basis for this judgment is if the clothing is deemed to be a distraction from the educational environment.”
The young women protesters felt singled out because staff judged their clothing to be distracting to male students and male staff members.
“I do believe that there needs to be a dress code,” Smith said to the board. “I believe the written form of our dress code is very professional. I think there are a few wording mistakes, but that can be revised. My question for you today is, how are you going to prevent another thing like Friday from happening? We need to protect our girls. We need to inform them, and we need to make sure they are comfortable going to high school every day.”
Principal Ed Raines said a few days after the board meeting that staff members are posted at the entrances each morning to ensure students comply with the mask-wearing mandate. He was told 25 to 30 students participated in the protest out of a total student body of 2,000. By the time he got to the auditorium, all but 12 had returned to class.
“It’s not unusual for us, as kids are coming into the building, to make mention of dress code violations that we see,” he said. “The vast majority of conversations we have with students about dress code are informal. A lot of them never get entered into our student management system because we’re able to resolve the vast majority of them pretty easily.”
Students who break the dress code receive the option of changing into something else.
They can choose from clothes available in the office or have someone bring them clothing from home. Raines dug into the student management system and found 18 disciplinary incidents, 14 for males and four for females, primarily due to noncompliance. But he also understood the perception of singling out female students.
“The language in the dress code has largely been the same since I arrived at Rural 15 years ago,” Raines said. “It’s often through these kinds of situations that we end up evaluating policy to see whether or not it’s still relevant. I do think one of the unfortunate words we use in our policy is ‘distraction.’ Because really, it’s not so much about that as it is about setting a tone about what a more formal environment like a school needs to be in terms of dress.”
All Kansas school districts need to take a closer look at inherent sexism in their dress codes. The first step should be an open conversation with students to forge a policy acceptable to the entire school community.
Perhaps we should look to the words of Christian Ryan, who also addressed the school board about the Washburn Rural dress code.
“I think it’s belittling to the men of Washburn saying that we can’t control ourselves and making it the young women’s problem,” he said. “They shouldn’t have to comply so us young men can control ourselves. If it’s really a problem, then the administration should have a discussion with young men about how they should compose themselves. … I think it’s really important that we instill a sense in these young men that they need to protect one another and their female peers.”
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