Are There Double Standards In School Dress Code Policies?

February 27, 2014  |  

Is it really sex discrimination if a school’s dress code prohibits boys from wearing long hair?

This is the question raised by Eugene Volokh of the Volokh Conspiracy column, who says that dress and grooming codes are common issues of dispute under employment discrimination (both governmental and non-governmental) bans. He cites a panel decision, reached earlier this week, by the 7th Circuit court in a case (Hayden v. Greensburg Community School Corp.) that revolved around a public high school basketball team’s requirement that boys cut their hair quite short. Of course girls players had no such requirement.

According to Volokh, the court concludes that this code is unconstitutional, which might not come as a surprise for most who feel that hair as well as dress are all part of our freedom of expression. But in addition to constitutionality, the courts thought the ban was a double standard and even more strict than what society typically deems as appropriate male appearance. Writes Volokh, part of the opinion cited this reasoning:

We certainly agree that the pedagogical and caretaking responsibilities of schools give school officials substantial leeway in establishing grooming codes for their students generally and for their interscholastic athletes in particular. But that leeway does not permit them to impose non-equivalent burdens on school athletes based on their sex.”

Racially speaking, there is plenty of research, which show African American youth are targeted more for disciplinary action (including suspensions, detention and expulsions) for violating school policies including dress codes. So this decision is slightly freeing for young black men in particular, who now can not be targeted for disciplinary actions for having hairstyles like dreadlocks and braids (at least in that particular school district).

However, I am not certain if it is a double standard, as the court appears to suggest. It is true that most girls are not normally instructed to shorn their hair low for participation in activities; however, as this piece in Think Progress points out, their hair and bodies are regulated in other ways through dress codes – sometimes more so than their male counterpart.

Last year, a student wrote a well argued, op-ed piece for her high school newspaper about her own school’s obsession with regulating the amount of skin shown on girl students:

The amount of rules that girls have to go through when choosing their outfit for the day is not even comparable to that of a guy. There are no specific requirements on how short someone can wear their clothes or the length of shirt sleeve, according to the Student Handbook, if it causes a distraction then it is not allowed.”

In California, a junior high school banned leggings for girls, with claims that they were a “distraction.” Not to be outdone, a California charter high school, made female dress code violators attend “Dress Like A Lady,” seminars while their male violating counterparts were given internships with local businesses. And as this article in the Wall Street Journal reminds us, school systems from coast to coast all have separate policies to regulate what has been deemed as “risque” prom dresses. Not to mention the endless stories of little black girls with ethnic and unique hairstyles, who routinely find themselves on the wrong side of school dress code policies.

Outside of telling boys to pull up their pants (and in some instances, prohibiting young men from wearing dresses and feminine apparel), we would be hard pressed to find equivalent burdens put on their appearance as we do girl children. And since that is the case, it doesn’t quite make sense that the courts would see a basketball team’s hair style policy any more discriminatory than what they usually are.

It’s one of the reasons why I generally dislike dress codes, for schools in particular. Put aside the lack of conclusive evidences, which support the effectiveness of such policies. Let’s consider for a moment how we always drill into the youth’s head that education and how a student achieves academically are what is supposed to matter.  However, when we put so much emphasis on their appearance, even if it is tell them that it is not “appropriate” (which again is subjective), we really show the young that the opposite is true – so much so that we are willing to suspend you from school or deny your participation in school-related events, just to prove it.

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