Parents successfully fight against ‘sexist’ dress code

Tahoma Schools approves new policy focused less on girls’ clothing

Tahoma students who struggle with deciding what to wear the first week back to school may be helped by the new dress code adopted by the Tahoma School District’s Board of Directors this summer. The new code was advocated for by local students and parents who found the old code too restrictive and unfair towards girls.

The district voted unanimously to approve a new dress code, which went into affect immediately.

After months of discussion, thoughtful adjustments and multiple sit-down meetings, the board finally approved a new policy.

It started with a survey sent to parents in the district during the month of June. The survey, created by some district teachers and staff, asked about how the student dress policy affected them, and what their thoughts were on the matter.

According to Tahoma School District Spokesperson Kevin Patterson, the district received 3,349 responses to the survey and 1,692 individual comments. The survey results showed;

•57 percent of surveyed parents felt the dress code was “just right.”

•7 percent of surveyed parents felt the dress code was “too restrictive.”

•10 percent of surveyed parents felt the dress code was “too lenient.”

“What’s interesting about this survey, while it looks like the majority said it was fine, but the actual comments were strongly advocating for change and that it was sexist,” Tahoma parent and local advocate Alicia Busch said. “And a large portion of female students and parents were saying that. It tells a different story when you look at the written responses.”

“Some said the code was outdated and sexist,” Patterson said.

The issue around possible “sexist” dress codes is not isolated to Maple Valley. All over the nation students, parents and teachers have been mulling over a changing cultural when it comes to teens and how they express themselves.

In April, Tucson, Arizona’s largest school district removed “sexist language” from its dress code, according to the Arizona Daily Star. The changes were spurred by a student group called the “Tucson High’s Human Rights Club.

“The adults who are supposed to keep us safe need to stop sexualizing the female body,” the group was quoted in the Daily Star.

An article published in September, 2018 by Vox highlights how student and parent groups are “waging war on sexist and racist school dress codes.” The story highlights changes made in districts from Florida to Oregon.

Spurred by the comments in the survey, Tahoma administrators started to look at the policy and found some parts of the code were outdated and possibly too specific.

“We are trying to reflect current standards, styles and expectations,” Patterson said. “There were some sections to the code that were outdated.”

Some of these sections Patterson referred to included references to Spandex, shorts that must be fingertip in length and pants free of holes.

“Well they sell pants with holes in them now-a-days,” Patterson said. “And many people commented that it is nearly impossible to find girls’ shorts that match the fingertip criteria.”

Instead, Patterson said the district administrators wanted to focus on the main ideas around a dress code.

“We want to make sure there is no disruptions to a student education. So no messages of drugs, alcohol or lewd materials. We do want to allow personal expression,” he said. “We haven’t looked at the dress code since 2007. We are trying to make it reflect reality. It’s been difficult at times.”

Busch said she was surprised by the lack of interest in the dress code, especially after the district passed an equality and inclusivity proclamation in March.

“This is a very important issue to me, and it’s a small step to make good on the proclamation promises,” Busch said. “It’s been because there has been a lot of resistance from an all-female board in recognizing that the current policies are sexist and targets female students.”

Busch, who collaborated on the equality proclamation, went to nearly all the school board meetings regarding the dress code and spoke up for teens, like her daughters.

In her personal life as a mother of two teenage daughters, she has seen how the dress code started reinforcing old ideas of how teen girls “should present themselves.” She also started to see how the dress code was one more way the world was going to treat her daughters unequally.

“These codes tend to be applied unevenly, especially to girls with curvier bodies or students of color,” Busch said. “It’s biased.”

She went on to describe an experiment two teen sisters she knows have been subtly executing while attending classes. Busch describes one of the sisters as “slim” and the other as “heavier set.” Both sisters wore similar outfits to school multiple times. According to Busch, the slimmer sister has never been dress coded while her other sister have been dress coded multiple times.

“It shows how curvier girls and girls of color are being targeted,” she said.

Busch wasn’t the only one speaking up against the dress code. Tahoma eighth-grade student Anna Meyers spoke up at the regular board meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 27 in support of a revised dress code.

“I feel the dress code is targeted towards females,” Meyers said. “For example, my mom and I went to the mall today and 95 percent of the shorts I tried on did not meet the mid-thigh code whereas all the shorts we saw in the boys’ section did. I feel girls shouldn’t constantly worry about their appearance or feel judged by what we choose to wear. I want us to feel comfortable with ourselves and have a positive learning environment. I have a friend who says it’s more distracting to have a friend coded during class than it is to have girls wear shorts they feel comfortable in. I respectfully request the new dress code be more equitable for girls.”

District leaders proposed the first revision of the code during the June 11 regular board meeting. A second revision was proposed on Aug. 6. The third revision, which was approved by the board, made some big changes, and some not-so-big changes to Policy No. 3224.

The phrase “district-wide student dress and grooming standards are intended to help students engage in learning and enhance school order and safety,” was added to the top of the policy to outline the reasoning behind the code. A few other revisions included; That the dress code will be gender-neutral and “will not restrict a student’s clothing choices on the basis of gender,”; and now requiring periodic training to help teachers and staff implement the code in a consistent manner.

The main point of the dress code, according to the third revision, is to make sure no lewd, sexual, drug, tobacco or alcohol-related messages of “gang-related” apparel is worn at school.

“The uniforms of nationally recognized youth organizations and clothing worn in observance of a student’s religion are not subject to this policy,” the code reads. “This policy will not create disparities, reinforce or increase marginalization of any group, nor will it be more strictly enforced against students because of racial identity, ethnicity, gender identity, gender expression, gender nonconformity, sexual orientation, cultural or religious identity, household income, body size/type or body maturity.”

The board spent over an hour during the Aug. 27 meeting discussion the last revision of the code. The board discussed specific parts of the code, how some staff are uncomfortable with speaking about specific body parts with students when it comes to appearance, the definition of “mid-thigh” when it comes to shorts and skirts, and more. Overall it came down to, should the code be black-and-white with its rules or more gray, leaving it open for different interpretations for different situations.

“End of the day I want whats best for our students and what’s best for that environment,” President of the Board Didem Pierson said at the Aug. 27 meeting. “And I think having (the policy) a little gray works here.”

After the code was approved, district staff began training on how to implement the new code and make sure all families were made aware of the updated school policy.

“From where we started out and where we’ve moved forward to … I know there were lessons learned and hoped we can remember them moving forward,” Pierson said.

A previous version of this story misrepresented two teenagers relationship to one of the sources. This has been corrected.

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