After students and parents protested that school dress codes are outdated, unfair to girls and inconsistent, the Mountain View Whisman School District will spend the next three months exploring ways to revamp its policies.
Board members agreed at the Dec. 16 meeting to reconsider the dress code policy, which sets an overarching framework but leaves it up to each of the 11 schools to set rules and restrictions. Middle school students and district parents slammed the existing rules for being unrealistic, and enforced in a way that shames girls for seemingly arbitrary infractions.
Students reported feeling embarrassed when pulled aside to talk about inappropriate attire in front of their peers.
"It is shaming, it is humiliating, it is embarrassing," said Graham parent Jasmine Teleki.
The board policy, adopted in 2003, is short and broad, essentially stating that students' clothing should be neither a hazard nor a distraction to others. The rest of the rules dictating what students can or cannot wear, from hats to sandals, are handled differently at each school. At Graham Middle School, low-cut tops, tube tops and tank tops with straps less than 2 inches wide are not allowed, as are the less-defined "oversized clothing" and "sagging pants."
At Graham, shorts, skirts and dresses must be at least "fist length" when the student's arms are down at their sides, whereas at Crittenden Middle School the length must reach below the fingertips. Both schools do not permit shirts that expose the torso or midriff.
There has been a student-led effort at Crittenden to get the rules changed over the last year, said district parent and staff member Shanna Bengtson, which she said began when four eighth-grade girls approached her and expressed frustration over the existing dress code policy. To drive the point home, they made a presentation to Principal Sonia Gomez while all wearing the same outfit, showing that various body types can either violate or conform with the fingertip test.
"It was different for each girl," Bengtson said. "We are policing bodies -- different body shapes -- using this standard, and obviously that can be problematic."
Seventh grade Crittenden student Adriana Eden told board members that almost none of her shorts actually follow the dress code, but she's never been called out by school staff when wearing them. Other girls might be targeted for the same clothes, she said, raising equity issues for students based on factors like the length of their arms.
Teleki, who raised the issue to trustees in the past, said some of the existing rules across the district are absurd, particularly tank tops that must have straps that are at least 2 inches wide -- about the thickness of the straps on a men's XXL basketball jersey. Pulling students aside and asking them to cover up or change into less revealing attire is more distracting than the clothes themselves, she said, and arguably gets in the way of the district's educational mission.
"The dress code policy is an opportunity for us as a community to reinforce radical inclusion rather than, 'Your education is the most important thing, unless you're wearing a spaghetti-strap tank top,'" Teleki said.
The level of dress code enforcement and number of students pulled aside to talk about inappropriate clothing is not tracked, and the most recent dress code-related violation that led to a disciplinary action was in 2013, said Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph. That could still mean that students are being regularly confronted about their clothing, but the district has no way of knowing whether girls or other specific groups of students are being targeted.
"We do not have any data whatsoever," Rudolph said. "It doesn't mean students aren't being talked to or addressed by teachers, but when the district pools the data, we can't see that there's any suspensions or incidents that are being logged under dress codes."
Board members generally agreed, without taking a vote, that the dress code should be updated to reflect the changing sentiments over appropriate school clothing, but left open the possibility for site-specific dress codes rather than a one-size-fits-all approach at the district level. One potential example for the district to follow is the Alameda Unified School District's 2018 dress code update, which broadly expanded what students could wear on campus.
The Alameda policy states students are allowed to wear hats, hoodies, yoga and other fitted pants, as well as midriff-baring shirts, ripped jeans and tube tops. While Mountain View Whisman trustees were amenable to some of Alameda's more liberal dress code, a few of the allowed clothing types seemed a little over the top. Board president Tamara Wilson questioned whether pajamas were appropriate at school, while board member Laura Blakely questioned allowing tube tops.
Certain types of clothing are almost guaranteed to stay banned in the revised policy. Rudolph said gang paraphernalia, including bandannas that frequently serve to represent gangs, will likely be prohibited in accordance with state laws. State education code does not explicitly call for a ban on bandannas, but does permit local school boards to prohibit gang-related apparel that could constitute a hazard to health and safety.
Blakely said she would want any revised dress code policy to include the option for individual school communities, if they chose, to have school uniforms exempted from the district's regulations. Doing so requires at least six months' notice to parents and enough resources to help low-income families afford the new uniforms.
Rudolph said the district will aim to update the dress code policy by the end of the 2019-20 school year, and that students will get a chance to give input during the process.