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Enforcing Dress Codes a Continuous Challenge

Dress codes are hard to create -- and harder to enforce -- but with enough parent and student involvement at the beginning, and consistent enforcement once they are in place, educators at three schools report that dress codes can work. Included: Three schools' new polices and their enforcement strategies.

Dress codes can be hard to create, and even harder to enforce once they are in place, particularly in the upper grades. But educators are making them work at three schools that revised or instituted new dress codes this school year.

Education World recently talked with staff members in those schools to see how the new regulations were holding up in an era of wardrobe malfunctions, low-cut tops, and low-slung pants.


Several of those educators said they revised their dress policies at the start of the school year because more students were coming to school in the latest, most revealing outfits or dressed so casually that they looked as if they were headed for slumber parties.

"Not all students displayed good common sense or good taste when it came to clothing," said Bill Brousse, co-principal of Carlisle (Pennsylvania) High School, explaining why a new dress code was drawn up last year. "Some of it was totally inappropriate for school settings. The girls wanted to wear skimpy, low-cut tops, and very short skirts. Everyone wanted to look like Britney Spears. The boys were wearing low-slung, baggy pants that revealed their underwear." Some students even came to school wearing pajama bottoms and slippers, he said.

Others hoped standards for attire would help students focus more on academics and less on fashion. "We're trying to get a more serious atmosphere and get students more serious about their education," said Nancy Vaughn, a spokeswoman for the Waterbury (Connecticut) Public Schools. Waterbury has had a dress code for all students for several years, but this year district officials banned all denim pants. "We've had a better attitude in schools since the ban was instituted," added Vaughn.

Besides Carlisle High School, which tightened up its dress codes to ensure all body parts were covered, and the denim ban in Waterbury, Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, Maryland, implemented uniforms.

Enforcing the new regulations can be a continuous challenge, some said, but staff members at all three schools are committed to making their policies work.

"There was feeling about the overwhelming influence of the fashion industry on students We wanted to get the media [influence] off their backs."

-- John Bois
Northwestern High School,
Hyattsville, Maryland


In each of the schools, a committee of parents, staff, and students helped write or change the dress codes. The committees tried to set guidelines that would work for most students.

At Northwestern High School, surveys were sent to parents asking their views on a dress code, said John Bois, a biology teacher who served as chairman of the uniform committee. While only 30 percent of parents responded, 80 percent of respondents favored a stricter dress code, he told Education World.

"There was feeling about the overwhelming influence of the fashion industry on students," Bois said. "We wanted to get the media [influence] off their backs."

The final version of Northwestern High's dress code was based mostly on student input. Students are required to wear skirts, pants, dresses, and shorts that are khaki, navy blue, or black. They also must wear button down or polo shirts in white, khaki, light or medium blue, navy blue, or black. Gone are jeans, crop tops, baggy pants, hooded sweatshirts, flip-flops, and slippers. Teachers are required to fill out detention slips for students not complying with the regulations.

"Teachers were afraid this would be one more thing they had to police, but I said that if ultimately everyone is better behaved, than there is less policing to do," Bois said.

At the beginning of the year, compliance was widespread and immediate. But as the year goes on, more students are testing the rules by wearing jeans or other banned items.

"It's very hard; enforcement is a continuous challenge," Bois added. "The pressure on parents to buy clothes is really strong; I think the parents also would like some relief. This [new policy] is the school and parents standing together to help their children get through the tough period of adolescence."

He said he has not perceived a change in students' approach to their studies since the new dress code was adopted, but that could happen, as the regulations become part of the school culture. "It's a signal that we want to make academics the primary focus," Bois noted.

"We've had fewer discipline issues since we instituted the policy"

--Nancy Vaughn
Waterbury (Connecticut) Schools


Officials in the Waterbury Public Schools, though, say they have seen a change in students' behavior and attitudes since becoming the first district in Connecticut to institute a dress code/uniform policy several years ago.

"We've had fewer discipline issues since we instituted the policy, parents and faculty agree," said Vaughn, the district's spokeswoman.

The 18,000-student district has prohibited blue jeans for several years, and this year, went a step further and banned all denim, in part because students wanted the regulations clearer.

Prior to this year, students could wear black or khaki jeans, and they would get into debates with staff about the color of their jeans, said Barbara Carrington, principal of Crosby High School, one of three high schools in the district. "There were questions as to whether jeans were black or blue, blue or grey," Carrington told Education World. "Sometimes a kid would say, 'It just looks like denim.'"

"We spent a lot of time enforcing this," Carrington told Education World. "We felt it was to everyone's benefit to go one way or the other [on permitting jeans] so we could just end the issue.

Beginning this year, all students also are required to wear shirts with collars.

Staff members have been diligent about enforcing the new regulations, Carrington said. "We've had a few violations written up every day." The school holds "dress code sweeps" every other day, in which teachers scan the class for violations and send students not in compliance to the office.

First offenders at the high school level are given a chance to change their clothes and return to class; if they don't, they are assigned in-school suspension. A second offense results in detention and an in-school suspension.

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Want to read more about uniforms and dress codes? See Uniforms in Education World's School Issues Glossary.


Carlisle High School did not go as far as banning jeans or requiring uniforms, but made certain students knew what they could wear to school by holding a fashion show during orientation in the late summer.

"The [dress code] change is effective district-wide, but the focus is on those in grades 6 to 12," Brousse told Education World.

During the fashion show, a student strode onto the stage in an inappropriate outfit (such as pajama bottoms and slippers) and then another appeared in more appropriate attire.

"One student transferred from another state and she said she was devastated," by the no-pajamas-rule, Brousse said. "She said it was the senior right to wear pajama bottoms to school. I said not here."

Besides leaving sleepwear at homes, girls also may not wear any tops that show cleavage or the midriff, and skirts have to be down to the fingertips when a girl stands with her arms at her sides. Baggy pants and all headgear also are banned.

First-time violators are referred to the office, and their parents contacted. "We have sent some students home to change or had parents bring clothes to school," Brousse noted. After numerous offenses, a student could be suspended, but so far no one has.

"Initially, we all were concerned about the time we would have to spend enforcing it," according to Brousse. "We haven't had to spend a good deal of time on it. It rarely goes past the first or second offense. But it's an everyday task."

Brousse also thinks the dress code has made some students focus more on their schoolwork. "There has been a change in the atmosphere -- a change for the better -- kids seem to take things more seriously."

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2007 Education World

Originally published 03/22/2005
Last updated 05/25/2007