A top, a bottom and footwear.
That’s the much-simplified dress code Seattle Public Schools introduced to more than a hundred schools in its jurisdiction, beginning this school year.
The change comes after teachers, students and school-board members complained that students lost learning time when they had to go home for dress-code violations. They also said the old rules — which included bans on leggings, sagging pants and shorts with a 4-inch inseam — discriminated against girls and students of color.
In response, the district took dress codes out of the hands of individual schools and created a single, simple edict: As long as clothes will not reveal private parts or incite hostility, all students have to do is wear is a top and bottom (or a dress) and shoes. That’s it.
The decision made waves locally. Ronald Boy, legal counsel to Seattle Public Schools, said he received a flood of support on social media from current and former students and parents across Washington. And while, so far, few other schools or school districts in Washington have adopted similar dress-code policies, Boy said he heard from some school administrators who mentioned doing so.
A well-crafted dress code should promote individuality and democratize social standing, said Tom Halverson, a University of Washington professor who studies education policy. Conversely, dress codes also have the power to prevent students — especially girls, gender-nonconforming students and people of color — from getting an education by forcing them to miss class to go home and change, or making them feel self-conscious or unwelcome.
“From an administrative perspective, [a dress code] starts to take away some of the policing that teachers and administrators have to do,” Halverson said. It allows teachers to operate on a baseline of what is and isn’t appropriate and focus on other things, he said.
Typically, schools are in charge of crafting their own policies, often with the help of some district guidelines.
Three public elementary schools in Everett mandated uniforms for all their students. Two of them, the newly opened Tambark Creek Elementary School and Hawthorne Elementary School, are asking students in kindergarten through fifth grade to wear uniforms such as white polo shirts, khakis and blue sweaters. Unlike at some schools around the country, students at Tambark Creek and Hawthorne won’t be required to purchase uniforms with a specific emblem stitched into them.
Tambark Creek administrators say the uniform is meant to “promote inclusivity and a sense of belonging” and ensure their students — who come to the new school from three different elementaries — can integrate in a positive environment.
But in a strict uniform environment, Halverson said, “inclusivity” can be hard to come by — uniforms, by definition, leave little room for students to express individuality.
“The uniform policy is not a panacea,” the UW professor said. “It does not seem to have the sort of impact all the time everywhere that we would wish that it might.”
And so the conversation about dress codes continues.
Seattle Public Schools’ new dress code is meant to stamp out confusing, inconsistent and discriminatory dress codes across individual schools in the district. One middle school required inseams on shorts to be 3 inches; another, 4 inches. Yet another maintained a fingertip rule and an inseam rule.
“There is just this really deeply ingrained belief about school dress codes,” said Boy, the school district’s attorney. “But when you really kind of break it down … then people have the chance to reflect and be like, ‘Oh, yeah, that doesn’t really make sense.'”
Boy said that while he was analyzing dress codes in preparation for Seattle Public Schools’ overhaul, he noticed some were based on etiquette rather than on helping a child learn. For example, regulations about wearing a hat came from the idea that it was impolite to wear a hat indoors.
“They’re just based on these silly, old-fashioned ideas that, for some reason … it took us a long time to kind of grow out of,” Boy said.
Everett officials said 99% of students showed up to the first day of Tambark Creek Elementary School in uniform. Meanwhile, Seattle Public Schools students returned to school this year perhaps worrying less about being disciplined for their attire.
“[Dress codes] can significantly destigmatize what people look like on the outside,” Halverson said. “Or, at least, that’s the hope.”