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Student activists push to change Detroit schools’ dress code

Masked students sit in rows in a classroom, all wearing blue shirts and sweaters.

The current dress code policy at Detroit Public Schools Community District, students told Chalkbeat, places greater pressure on female students to adhere to a certain body type, is unequally enforced, and leaves too much discretionary power in the hands of teachers.

Di’Amond Moore / Detroit Free Press

As Aniyah Pouncy dressed for school one September morning in 2020,  she did something she’d done many times before: She grabbed a pair of green camouflage pants that matched nicely with her black crewneck sweatshirt.

Hours later, though, Aniyah was sent home from Cass Technical High School for violating the school’s color requirement in the dress code. It was a bewildering experience for Aniyah, who had not been disciplined for wearing that outfit before. The green camouflage pants, she’d thought that morning as she dressed, were within her school’s green, black, and khaki color requirement. But the dress code requires solid-colored pants.

“It was wildly upsetting and confusing,” Aniyah said.

The experience is one of many examples of school dress codes that are applied unevenly and subjectively, she and other students say. Aniyah is among a group of teens from the student organization Detroit Area Youth Uniting Michigan who have become vocal advocates for change, pushing the district’s leadership to eliminate its uniform and dress code policy. They have hosted virtual student speakouts, created an online petition with over 340 signatures, and emailed Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

Vitti said the district acknowledges criticisms but he has no intention of eliminating the district’s dress code or uniform policies, adding that the policies are “historic” and have “been a part of the district’s culture for some time.” 

The district conducted review sessions in early March to collect feedback from students and families ahead of any revisions to the code of conduct, which includes the dress code.

In recent years, students across the country have challenged their school dress codes, citing sexist enforcement toward female students and disparate impact on protected classes such as gender, race, and religion. In Florida, a growing number of school districts have removed gendered references to clothing in their code of conduct in response to student outcry.

“I feel passionate about a change to the dress code because I think the reasons for the (policy) are problematic and they aren’t equally enforced,” Aniyah said.

“A dress code might be better if it was actually focused on things that made the students feel good, rather than the administration just trying to have control over students.”

Detroit’s dress code policy bans leggings, halter tops, and skirts that go above the knees, as well as clothing that reveals a student’s abdomen or cleavage. Consequences for violating the policy can include write ups, verbal warnings, and in-school suspension, according to the district’s code of conduct guide. 

The current dress code policy, students told Chalkbeat, places greater pressure on female students to adhere to a certain body type, is unequally enforced, and leaves too much discretionary power in the hands of teachers.

“We cannot control what our bodies look like,” said Cass Tech senior TaLia Price. Curvier women, she said, are more vulnerable to being suspended for wearing leggings or yoga pants.

“I know some girls that said that they wish that they were smaller, so they can get away with leggings. That’s not OK,” she added.

“If it’s the dress code that’s making people feel bad about their bodies, then clearly we need to get rid of the dress code or at least accommodate something better than saying you can’t wear leggings, but picking and choosing who y’all want to violate for wearing leggings.”

Renaissance High student Alexis Pickett is not against her school’s dress code policy, but she’s noticed teachers have more harshly enforced the dress code policy over the last several months.

“I totally understand why they do it, however, I feel like the strictness of it is kind of getting out of hand at this point,” Alexis said.

Vitti said, “The District recognizes the concerns shared by students, families, and staff regarding the dress code and how we enforce the policy at different schools. We will continue to strengthen our professional development for school-based personnel to ensure that our practices are consistent Districtwide.” 

Principals, he added, have the authority to modify their policies or incorporate “non-uniform days” to incentivize students to come to school in clothes of their preference.

In the mid-1990s, urban public schools began to require school uniforms  to address campus safety and student discipline in the wake of national concern. The decision received support from the U.S. Department of Education, which in 1996 released an instructional manual on how school districts could adopt their own policy. 

During the 1996-97 school year, 3% of public schools had uniform policies, according to a survey by the National Center for Education Statistics. In the 2017-18 school year, 20% of public schools required that students wear uniforms, while 49% of public schools enforced a strict dress code. 

Mandatory uniforms, the survey reports, are most prevalent in urban and ‘high poverty’ schools (districts where 76% of students or more are eligible for free or reduced lunch).

There is little consensus on the function of uniform policies, or empirical research on their impact on educational and health outcomes. Studies over the last decade have varied over whether dress codes have a positive or negative impact on academic performance, behavior, and student well-being.

Policy revisions ultimately need to be approved by the school board by late spring or early summer, according to Vitti, but he says he’s not heard from school board members interested in changing the policy.

This would not mark the first time in recent history that the district considered revising its dress code policy. In 2019, the school board approved changes to the code of conduct that allowed for students to wear shorts to school.

In lieu of a policy change, Vitti said the district needs to improve its training for employees enforcing the dress code. The district’s code of conduct states that students who believe there is discriminatory enforcement of the dress code should report it to school staff or the district’s civil rights office.

“I expect us to make policy changes here and better train and hold employees accountable to enforcing the dress code with improved gender fairness,” he said.

For students like TaLia, change to the policy is more than welcome. 

“I just really feel as though they really pick and choose who they want to give in-school suspensions to and who they want to dress code. And I feel like that’s just not fair.”

Hafiza Khalique, chair of Detroit Area Youth Uniting Michigan and a senior at Cass Tech, said she and her peers decided to pursue a campaign against the dress code after their school offered students a less strict version of their policy as an incentive to get more students vaccinated ahead of the start of school. 

If Cass Tech reached a vaccination rate of 70% or above, school officials told students and families, they would offer “free dress,” allowing students to wear clothing regardless of school color. The school ultimately reached its goal, but for Hafiza, the school’s willingness to change its dress code suggested it was not nearly as important for ensuring behavior.

“We all came to agree this is an issue that we need to target, and what better time than now, when we’re realizing that it took COVID vaccines to get the school to remove their (dress code),” she said.

Ethan Bakuli is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering Detroit Public Schools Community District. Contact Ethan at ebakuli@chalkbeat.org.

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