Victoria-area schools take fresh look at dress codes

The Greater Victoria school board is considering a new approach to dress codes, which some say shame girls instead of teaching boys respect.

Trustee Jordan Watters said dress codes that prohibit “distracting” clothing, for example, send the wrong message about who is responsible for inappropriate behaviour.

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“What that is really referencing is girls shouldn’t wear clothes that are distracting to boys or men. That makes girls responsible for men’s feelings and actions and that’s not a message we want to be sending,” she said.

Watters is bringing a motion before the board Monday that would call on the district to bring dress codes in line with its commitment to gender equity. What form that would take has to be determined through further discussion, she said.

Each school currently defines its own dress code, but a district policy would require them to be compatible. At least one high school has no dress code and one elementary school has uniforms.

It’s insulting to boys to assume they can’t control themselves when faced with a female body, Watters said. And based on some studies, more developed girls face an unfair level of enforcement, she said.

“It can be really awful for an 11-year-old to be pointed out for wearing something inappropriate, even though she’s wearing the same thing as everyone else, but she happens to have breasts,” Watters said.

Tasha Diamant, who has daughters in Grade 3 and 9, said reprimanding girls for what they’re wearing can make them feel shame about their bodies.

“One year, a young [middle school] girl, in front of the whole class, was told to go find something from the lost and found to put over what she was wearing,” said Diamant, who spoke in favour of the motion at the school board’s operations committee meeting.

Dress codes prohibiting visible bra straps might seem harmless, but they relate to a bigger narrative that teaches girls to avoid sexual assault, instead of teaching boys not to do it, she said.

But Elaine Leonard, who has been a trustee for 18 years and chairs the operations committee, said it’s difficult not to take into account gender differences when thinking about dress codes.

“If a guy wears a tank top, it’s different than if a young lady does,” Leonard said. “I think some clothing is inappropriate. How it’s inappropriate has to be determined.” Schools already set rules for students around things such as start times, so it’s not unreasonable to think there would be rules about conduct or dress, as well, she said.

The same topic has arisen at the Saanich school district for decades, superintendent of schools Keven Elder said.

“The work that has been done in schools to address the question of attire has landed, we think, quite effectively in school codes of citizenship and conduct,” he said.

When discussing personal appearance, administrators are careful to use language that applies to both genders, he said.

For example, a school may require that clothes cover underwear and underclothing, including both bra straps and boxer shorts.

There’s still a place for dress codes in schools, he said. “We believe there is attire appropriate for school in the same way there’s attire appropriate for a workplace. We think it’s a matter of respect and helping young people not draw attention to themselves in ways that they may not want to be drawing attention,” Elder said.

In the Sooke district, superintendent of schools Jim Cambridge said the issue has not come up, although it’s something administrators will look at.

“Some of our dress codes date back five or 10 years and certainly sensibilities have changed since then,” he said.

“But our biggest concerns have been about prohibiting racist, violent, drug-related messages on T-shirts and clothing.”

If there is language that singles out girls, it will likely be removed at the next dress-code review, he said.

School dress codes have also been an issue elsewhere, with hundreds of petitions from across the continent on the topic appearing at change.org.

One Kentucky student interviewed her classmates and school principal for a YouTube documentary called Shame: A Documentary on School Dress Code. It has had more than 350,000 views since being posted on Youtube in May 2015.

asmart@timescolonist.com

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