Saggy pants and strapless shirts? Wake schools might rethink dress code

Is the Wake County School System dress code unequal?

Broughton High School sophomore Jada Smith questions fairness of Wake County school dress code policy that will be reviewed by the district.
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Broughton High School sophomore Jada Smith questions fairness of Wake County school dress code policy that will be reviewed by the district.

Whether Wake County students are showing too much cleavage or wearing shorts that are too short often depends on which school they attend.

Wake changed its Code of Student Conduct in 2002 to add examples of what kinds of clothing are prohibited, including head coverings, sagging pants and excessively short or tight garments. The items that were added 15 years ago to make enforcement of the dress code more consistent are now being blamed by some school leaders for having the opposite effect.

“It’s very inconsistently enforced,” school board Vice Chairwoman Christine Kushner said during a discussion last week of the student dress code. “Go to any high school.”

School board members plan to review the wording on the dress code over the next year to see if any changes should be made. Superintendent Jim Merrill cautioned board members against doing anything that would undercut a teacher’s ability to enforce “classroom decorum.”

“If a young lady has very low jeans and the strap of her undergarment is showing with the little name across the top, that’s disruptive in class,” Merrill said. “That needs to be addressed.”

Views about the dress code vary among students.

“It doesn’t really affect the guys too much,” said Jay Sabha, 17, a senior at Enloe High School in Raleigh. “It mainly affects the females.”

Jada Smith, 16, a sophomore at Broughton High School in Raleigh, said the policy is enforced more on female students.

“I think it’s very sexist,” she said. “A lot of the things are geared toward females but not the males.”

But Hannah Elliott, 18, a senior at Broughton, said she’s fine with the dress code as it’s written.

“There are a lot of people who want to wear crop tops,” Elliott said of shirts that expose the midriff. “But I’m perfectly fine with it.”

Before the 2002-03 school year, school officials said the dress code policy was so vague that it resulted in widely varying standards of student dress throughout the school system. The changes included the addition of 11 examples of prohibited dress:

▪ Exposed undergarments;

▪ Sagging pants;

▪ Excessively short or tight garments;

▪ Bare midriff tops;

▪ Strapless shirts;

▪ Attire with messages or illustrations that are lewd, indecent or vulgar or that advertise any product or service not permitted by law to minors;

▪ Head coverings of any kind;

▪ See-through clothing;

▪ Attire that exposes cleavage;

▪ Any adornment, such as chains or spikes, that reasonably could be perceived as, or used as, a weapon;

▪ Any attire that is prohibited under the gang- or gang-related activity section.

Exemptions are allowed for medical and religious reasons. Schools can also add examples of prohibited clothing.

A violation can result in consequences such as in-school suspension or an out-of-school suspension for up to two days. School officials say three students were suspended for dress code violations last school year.

Every year, the school system reviews the Code of Student Conduct, which lists offenses such as inappropriate dress. At last week’s school board policy committee meeting, some board members argued that the examples should be removed.

“This list is seen by students in certain settings to be very inconsistently applied, particularly inconsistently applied to different body types,” said school board member Jim Martin, chairman of the policy committee.

Both Martin and school board member Lindsay Mahaffey said the same piece of clothing could be a violation or a nonviolation, depending on who is wearing it.

“If there’s someone who’s 5-foot and wears a pair of shorts, that same pair of shorts on someone who is much more leggy and is maybe 5-9, those shorts are going to look very different on a taller person,” Mahaffey said.

Martin called it “redundant” to list examples because the policy says clothing that is “disruptive, provocative, revealing, profane, vulgar, offensive or obscene, or which endangers the health or safety of the student or others is prohibited.”

But Julie Crain, Wake’s director of strategy and policy, said the examples provide guidance to principals and teachers.

I’m saying without the examples, these things become very subjective.

Julie Crain, Wake’s director of strategy and policy

“What’s provocative to one principal may not be provocative to another, may not be provocative to the teacher,” Crain said. “I’m saying without the examples, these things become very subjective.”

The school district is trying to approve revisions to the Code of Student Conduct before year-round schools start the next school year in July. With time short, the board’s policy committee accepted the compromise from Deputy Superintendent Cathy Moore to go ahead with some changes to the code while continuing to review individual offenses such as the dress code.

The school board is scheduled to give initial approval Tuesday to changes to the Code of Student Conduct that include beginning it with a section about the role of staff, students, parents and community partners in promoting positive school climates.

The changes also say that students shouldn’t be suspended for Level I offenses, such as dress code, unless there’s been at least two in-school interventions during the year and there’s a repeated pattern of violations.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui