Politics & Government

New dress code proposed in Wake would give students a lot more freedom

Wake County students could get more freedom in what they wear at school and face reduced consequences for some violations of school behavior.

A Wake County school board committee is scheduled to discuss Tuesday a new student dress code that would be more gender neutral and could allow students to wear items now banned by schools. The new policy is modeled after the student dress code used in Portland, Ore., which allows students to wear clothes such as bare-midriff tops, tank tops, strapless shirts, spaghetti straps and short shorts.

The potential changes have been eagerly anticipated by some Wake parents, particularly those of female students who think the current dress code is unfair to girls. Christine Grantham, a Raleigh parent, said Monday she’s ecstatic that the school board is working to replace the “outdated dress code” with a new one that is free of bias.

“Girls are absolutely unfairly targeted and shamed by the current dress code,” Grantham said. “Girls being taken out of class because a pair of shorts does not reach their fingertips and is a distraction is exactly the wrong message to send to our girls and boys.”

The school board’s policy committee is also scheduled to discuss Tuesday changes to the Student Code of Conduct that include reducing the severity for violations such as cheating and plagiarism. Other proposed changes would also include encouraging principals to reduce the use of in-school suspensions in favor of other “non-disciplinary interventions.”

Both policies represent the latest steps by North Carolina’s largest school district to redefine its student discipline practices, changes that have contributed to a 50-percent drop in out-of-school suspensions since 2007. School board member Christine Kushner said Tuesday’s discussion is part of an ongoing process to get feedback before any changes are approved.

“We will continue to seek community feedback,” Kushner, chairwoman of the board’s policy committee, said Monday. “We will talk to students to get feedback — both on the dress code policy and the Code of Student Conduct — that they will have their own wisdom to share with us, as well as parents and staff.”

The potential dress code changes would mark the first major change since the current policy was adopted in 2002. The current policy bans 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. Individual schools have also been allowed to add their own banned items.

But over the past 17 years, there has been debate about how the dress code is enforced, especially because many of the items seem to apply more to female students than male students.

Like a number of other districts, Wake has banned spaghetti strap shirts because bra straps could show and tube tops because they could show that a girl isn’t wearing a bra, according to Torrie Edwards, a UNC-Chapel Hill doctoral student who did her dissertation on North Carolina public school dress codes. She said some North Carolina districts require female students to wear undergarments.

At the urging of school board member Lindsay Mahaffey in April, Wake administrators have been looking at the gender-neutral dress code used by Portland Public Schools.

Like Portland, Wake’s proposed code sets general guidelines such as requiring students to wear tops and bottoms with fabric on the front and sides. Clothing must cover breasts and other private parts and must not be transparent. Clothing must cover undergarments, but the tops of waistbands and bra straps can be shown.

Some things are still specifically banned, such as clothing that depicts use of alcohol, tobacco and controlled substances; pornography; hate speech; or that poses a threat to the health and safety of other students or staff. But what is allowed has greatly expanded.

“There hasn’t been some massive blowup,” Edwards said of the districts that have adopted a Portland-style dress code. “You don’t see students walking around in wildly inappropriate clothing.”

Edwards said she’s cautiously optimistic about Wake’s proposal because it takes into account students who were disproportionately targeted by the old dress code.

“A girl can wear spaghetti straps in a room that’s a million degrees,” Edwards said of Wake’s proposed new dress code. “She doesn’t have to worry that her spaghetti strap is going to cause her to be pulled out of the class.”

Edwards said she’s particularly impressed by how Wake’s new dress code permits head coverings that are a form of cultural expression, such as African head wraps called geles. Five parents had asked the Durham school board in 2016 to allow their daughters to wear geles after they were told it violated the school’s dress code.

Kate Macdonnell, whose two daughters attend Apex Friendship High School, applauded the changes. She said the current rules are leading to body shaming of girls.

‘They’re adding a level of a tenderness, a level of respect, a level of thoughtfulness because things are different for boys and girls,” Macdonnell said in an interview Monday.

But Wake’s policy adds some language not used in Portland, including how students may not wear clothing that is “reasonably likely to create a substantial disruption of the educational process or the operations of the school.” Wake’s policy also says students are expected to adhere to standards of dress and appearance that are compatible with an effective learning environment.

Lisa Frack, past president of Oregon NOW, which created a model student dress code that Portland schools adopted in large part, had mixed feelings about Wake’s new dress code. Frack says Wake’s efforts to make the policy more gender-neutral could be undercut by the wording about creating an effective learning environment.

“I applaud the Wake County School District for its intentional work to shift its student behavior model away from ineffective discipline and towards pro-active partnership with students with an intent to reduce racial inequities,” Frack said in an email message.

“As proposed, the new student dress code — while an improvement — does not fully support the new direction, in spirit or letter of the code. With several meaningful changes, it could better align with the district’s goals.”

Conduct code changes

The changes to the Student Code of Conduct are also expected to get a lengthy discussion Tuesday.

Wake classifies violations into five levels, with Level 1 offenses not generally expected to result in an out-of-school suspension. Examples of Level I offenses include not following orders of school employees, disrespect, using inappropriate language, violating the dress code and using tobacco products.

Level 2 offenses typically result in out-of-school suspensions of up to five days. Examples include causing a disturbance on a school bus, theft, indecent exposure and bullying.

Level 3 offenses often result in suspensions for more than 11 days and include things such as possession of drugs or alcohol, possession of a weapon other than a firearm, assault on a student or school personnel and making a bomb threat.

Level 4 offenses are those required by state law to be 365-day suspensions such as possession of a firearm or destructive device such as a bomb.

Level 5 offenses result in permanent explusion. There aren’t any specific violations listed. This would be used if the district thinks a student poses a clear threat to the safety of other students and staff at a school.

The revised policy would move “integrity” violations, which include cheating and plagiarizing, from Level 2 down to Level 1.

Administrators had talked about removing the use of out-of-school suspensions for any Level 1 offenses. Instead, the policy would now say that out-of-school suspensions are allowed for “repeated willful violations of Level 1 rules.” But before a suspension can be issued, the student must have broken the same rule at least three times in the same semester and non-disciplinary alternatives must have been used already.

The revised policy also redefines the use of in-school suspensions. The current policy lumps in-school suspensions along with other in-school actions such as peer mediation and conflict resolution that can be used when a student breaks a rule.

Under the revised policy, in-school suspensions are lumped with out-of-school suspensions as examples of “disciplinary consequences” that are to be used only when non-disciplinary interventions are “deemed unlikely to be sufficiently effective.”

Kushner, the school board member, said the district’s staff will need to be trained on how to implement the new policies.

“We can’t just wave the policy wand,” she said. “We need to make sure that teachers understand the new policy and understand the expectations.”

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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.