by Michele Murphy
Greater Victoria School District – which is partly in Saanich – has just had what many consider to be a watershed moment for women with the passing of Policy 5132 – Student Dress Code.
“Dress codes have entered a new progressive era in the Greater Victoria School District!,” posts school trustee Jordan Watters, the trustee who took the lead on this motion. The final vote, after a marathon board meeting, was 7-2 with Ferris, McNally, Loring-Kuhanga, Nohr, Paynter, Watters, Whiteaker For and Leonard, and Orcherton Against.
“The idea that a visible bra strap or a pair of leggings will prevent a teen boy from learning is absurd to me. And I should know, I’m a teen boy! It suggests that a school’s priority is to create an ideal learning environment for males, while ignoring factors that may help females learn” – 16 yr. old male student
Officially, the new policy “supports the dress code consistently and in a manner that does not reinforce or increase marginalization or oppression of any group based on race, sex, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, cultural observance, household income or body type and size.” Specifically students may dress as they choose as long as their clothing conforms to established health and safety requirements for activities they may be doing and that their clothing does not promote drugs or alcohol or display offensive language or images.
The motion was unofficially titled the Human Rights Dress Code. So is this just a progressive’s idea of freedom to express one’s self, or is it something more?
Watters says no, it’s not about promoting individualism, but instead it is about supporting an inclusive community founded on respect and equity.
“Dress codes have contributed to many of our students feeling disrespected, shamed, misunderstood, and disconnected without solving any of the “problems” they set out to address. As a learning community, I think we can do better,” says Watters.
The impetus for that original motion grew out of the consultation for the gender identity and gender expression policy. Watters said that in that process they heard from many students who had had negative experiences of being “dress coded” – a situation where a student – primarily female – is removed from the classroom, asked to put on additional clothing, or singled-out based on opinions from educators on what they deem appropriate attire.
“Young women and gender non-conforming students spoke of the lasting negative impacts of having their bodies policed in such a way,” explains Watters. “Evidence shows that radicalized girls – particularly black and indigenous girls -are more commonly targets of the dress code. And we know it is middle school kids who are most often targeted by dress code enforcement.
Watters says that by removing the focus on dress, we can start looking at the actual issues at play.
“If a child is wearing a hoodie or hat because they want to hide – let’s supportively address why they are feeling disconnected from the school community, rather than pushing them further away. If a young woman is pushing boundaries sexually, let’s build a supportive connection with her so we can learn if she is struggling or in an unsafe situation. We can do that without humiliating her in front of her class – forcing her to go home, or forcing her to wear some “shirt of shame” to cover up. We want to draw students in, not push them out. “
The arguments for dress codes are most commonly about preparing children for workplace attire, and minimizing distraction in the classroom so that teachers can teach and students can focus on their work.
Watters finds the workplace attire argument hypocritical saying baggy sweatpants and yoga outfits met school dress codes – while rarely are they acceptable attire at the office.
But it’s the girls taking responsibility for where the boys choose to put their attention that may be the most troubling part of a school dress code.
According to Laura Bates of the Everyday Sexism Project and author of Everyday Sexism, “School Dress Codes Shame Girls and Perpetuate Rape Culture.”
Bates wrote in a Time Magazine article in 2015 that this is a critical moment. “The school dress code debate will be dismissed by many for being minor or unimportant, but it is not,” she explained.
‘When a girl is taken out of class on a hot day for wearing a strappy top, because she is ‘distracting’ her male classmates, his education is prioritized over hers. When a school takes the decision to police female students’ bodies while turning a blind eye to boys’ behaviour, it sets up a lifelong assumption that sexual violence is inevitable and victims are partially responsible. Students are being groomed to perpetuate the rape culture narrative that sits at the very heart of our society’s sexual violence crisis. It matters very much indeed.”
Trustee Watters says that, “Girls in our schools are not a distraction. They are our students. For generations we have made girls leave our classrooms in order not to distract boys. This has been a clear statement about whose education is valued more and it has helped foster a broader culture that blames women for being victims of assault and harassment.
“With our new policy in place we take the first step towards a future where no body is a distraction and all children are welcome to express themselves without fear of shame,” Watter’s post concludes.
The community presentation can be found HERE