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Wake County’s student dress code is changing. See what you can wear in school.

Wake County moving to a gender-neutral student dress code

Wake County school board member Christine Kushner says the district is looking at adopting a gender-neutral student dress code because of complaints the current policy discriminates against female students.
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Wake County school board member Christine Kushner says the district is looking at adopting a gender-neutral student dress code because of complaints the current policy discriminates against female students.

Wake County’s student dress code is getting its first major revision since the early 2000s as part of an effort to remove the language that some said was sexist and biased against female students.

The Wake County school board gave initial approval April 23 and final approval on May 7 to a new student dress code policy that’s billed as being more gender neutral and eliminates specific references to banned items that some female students complain had been targeted at what they wear. School leaders say the new policy still sets high standards for what students should wear.

“Rather than a list, we’re emphasizing an idea and that idea is a workplace standard,” said school board chairman Jim Martin. “I think having that conversation helps change the frame of mind from both the administrator and the student perspective, which is moving us to a positive place.”

The new policy goes into effect for the 2019-20 school year.

The new policy says clothing must cover front, back, sides and private parts and must not be see-through. Undergarments must be covered, but waistbands and bra straps are excluded.

The policy also says that clothing must cover from chest to mid-thigh. That wording was added to make sure that the new policy doesn’t allow currently banned items such as clothing that exposes midriffs.

Board members had debated whether including the mid-thigh wording was too restrictive but agreed to go with the language.

“It was a compromise,” said school board member Christine Kushner. “We all support this policy, and I appreciate that it is proactive and positive language having something that guides students instead of threatening students.”

This policy doesn’t apply to school-sanctioned uniforms and costumes approved for athletics, choral, band, dance or dramatic performances.

The new policy still bans some specific things, such as clothing that depicts use of alcohol, tobacco and controlled substances; pornography or hate speech. It also prohibits clothing that poses a threat to the health and safety of other students or staff or is reasonably likely to cause a substantial disruption.

School leaders say the new dress code is superior to the old policy that was approved in 2002 that lists 11 examples of items that are considered inappropriate, including exposed undergarments, sagging pants, excessively short or tight garments, bare-midriff tops, strapless shirts and attire that exposes cleavage.

Female students have complained that the current policy unfairly targets them, causing them to be pulled out of class for dress code infractions. For instance, school board member Lindsay Mahaffey said the current policy causes problems for parents finding long enough shorts for female students.

Mahaffey was credited by her colleagues with spearheading the new policy.

“I appreciate the fact that enforcement guidelines for this are laid out so that our students can maximize their time in class and not have that anxiety or feeling that comes with being pulled out for a dress code infraction,” she said.

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.
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