Editorial: Dress codes still belong in school

Part of an education is learning what is appropriate and what is not as you make your way in the world, and that includes how to dress. There is still a place for dress codes in schools.

But those codes should be fair, sensible and as gender-neutral as possible, which has not always been the case.

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Dress codes have come under fire throughout North America as being unfair and discriminatory, especially toward female students. This is one aspect that will likely come to the fore as the Greater Victoria school board takes a new look at dress codes.

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

Watters will bring a motion before the board Monday that would call on the district to bring dress codes in line with its commitment to gender equality.

As long as there have been school dress codes, students have rebelled against them. In the past, school officials got away with being authoritarian and heavy-handed. Students, and often their parents, are not so compliant these days, not so quick to be unquestioningly obedient.

The 1960s and 1970s brought confrontations over miniskirts and male students growing their hair long. Each new generation, it seems, has standards of grooming and attire that collide with tradition. Each older generation looks in alarm at how “kids these days” are dressing, or not dressing, as the case may be.

And, let’s face it, some of those dress codes were downright unfair. Older generations remember when girls were not allowed to wear jeans or slacks to school, even in the bitter winter weather of colder climates.

Girls got the brunt of edicts against dressing provocatively, on the grounds that doing so is distracting to male students. It has more than a whiff of the double standard that blames women for inappropriate sexual behaviour on the part of males.

Let’s be clear: Female attire, no matter what it is, is never an excuse for male misbehaviour.

Nevertheless, it is naïve to think that how girls dress does not distract boys. Males react to females — it’s basic biology. That does not give males licence to harass females or otherwise behave inappropriately. Raging hormones do not justify setting aside self-control and accepted social conduct.

But teenagers are works in progress. Their emotional and physical development are not complete. They tend to do foolish things. Just as schools try to teach mathematics, grammar and other academic skills, they should also try to instil certain life skills that will enable students to function more successfully as adults.

One of those skills is dressing for the occasion. In the adult world, there are appropriate codes of dress for different circumstances. Schools should be no different.

But dress codes should be drafted and administered sensitively and with as light a touch as possible. If a school’s dress code is drawn up in consultation with students, it is more likely to be in tune with the times, and there’s more likely to be buy-in. Enforcement should not be done through public humiliation, as has happened too often to students who violate a dress code.

Such a code should not target a specific gender. For instance, if tank tops or bare midriffs are decreed to be inappropriate, that should apply to male students as well as females.

A dress code should focus less on making students conform to a certain standard and more on preparing them for the real world. That involves helping them learn that, regardless of fads and fashions, good taste and common sense should prevail.

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