Point: Should dress codes be enforced in public high schools?

Josh Curtis, Contributing Writer


Regarding student dress codes, arguments in defense of individuality, freedom of expression, sexual non-objectification, and constitutional rights spring up in opposition.  However, most of these stances set up straw-man arguments about the pro-dress code policy.  In reality, the debate about dress code policies hinges upon two separate points: whether or not a dress code of any type should be enforced, ignoring the content of the dress code for the argument’s sake, and just how much freedom is actually guaranteed in the U.S.

The first argument is relatively simple; if a dress code is put into place, it must be enforced, as otherwise there is little reason to have a dress code.  If the dress code is left unenforced, it makes the situation increasingly complicated.  For example, an old rule of the Schreiber Code of Conduct that bans Walkman radios is still left in place.  This ban is clearly outdated, yet the rule has not garnered much attention.  As it is still on the books, administrators may capriciously enforce the rules to their own interpretation: it’s not hard to imagine a grouchy teacher using the rule to ban iPods in the hallway.

A more intellectual point about the dress code is the broken window theory.  It is much easier to enforce a rule and prevent the spread of a specific type of behavior than it is to fix this behavior.  If the administration establishes that students can dress however they like, it will be far more difficult to enforce a dress code later and to justify it without seemingly random punishment.

To get to the point, one may ask: why should it matter if rules are enforced? Should I not be able to dress however I want?  The answer, quite frankly, is a resounding no.

Imagine an extreme case—a recently desegregated school where white supremacists come to school wearing standard Ku Klux Klan garb; it would be safe to assume this would be disruptive, disconcerting, and even fear-inducing.  Without a dress code, there is no recourse to punish these students.

Many may think that a dress code is not realistically enforceable.

“There’s no good way of having a dress code without uniforms,” said junior Christopher Wilson.  “It’s either all or nothing.  Anything in between causes people to get angry at the dress code.”

The false assumption that people would not get upset at either option implies that it is impossible to enforce without a uniform.  In this scenario, look to the case of the white supremacist without a dress code.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, “Disruption is the right standard—School officials should only be concerned with clothing that is actually disruptive—which both dress codes and simple common sense are more than adequate to handle.”

With regards to sexually provocative clothing, there are only two simple arguments.  The clothing can be disruptive to learning—either for sexual or hormonal reasons, or for general reasons of discomfort.  If a student were to come to school wearing only a spandex bathing suit, any person would be disturbed and would hope administrators would send the perpetrator home.

However, it is well-known and undeniable that teenagers have an acute awareness of social strata which is largely informed by garnered attention.  With girls in some groups may compete for the most radical clothing. This may also appear in males, the most noted example being Air Jordans or other popular varieties of shoes.  If administrators deem that attention to social standing is taking attention away from learning, a dress code can provide a minimally intrusive resolution to this problem.

The final concern is one of rights.  Many opponents may argue that the freedom of expression is crucial to democracy. Fact: freedom of expression is not absolute.  As APUSH students now know, not even speech, a treasured right in this country, is absolute.  In the court case Tinker v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled that students have a right to freedom of expression as long as it is non-disruptive.

In this school district, many love to harp on Ms. Rodahan’s infamous spaghetti strap and short-shorts bans.  In order to have a sensible debate, however, we must disabuse ourselves of biases.  We must remember that these bans are not the only way to have a school dress code, and that boys falling down stairs are not the only reasons to have them—or else we risk losing the clear-headed insight democracy thrives upon.