Are Prudish School Dress Codes Targeting Girls in Violation of Discrimination Laws?

In the last few weeks, almost 200 students – almost all of them female – at Tottenville High School in Staten Island, New York have been given detention over dress code violations. Many of the young women showed back up to school in crop tops and tank tops, deliberately breaking the code in protest.

But what makes an outfit inappropriate? A peek of shoulder? An inch of midriff? Or maybe it’s just being young and female that school administrators find offensive. Because while these school dress codes are supposed to address both female and male students, it’s predominantly girls who are targeted as “violators” – and that could be a violation of federal law.

In a statement, Tottenville High School Superintendent Aimee Horowitz said in schools that don’t have uniform requirements “students have the right to determine their own dress except where such dress creates a distraction, is dangerous or interferes with the learning and teaching process.”

The Tottenville students’ outrage comes on the heels of a high school girl in Florida being made to wear a “shame suit” for breaking her school’s dress code and a middle schoolers in Illinois protesting their schools ban on leggings.

The idea of female bodies as “distracting” isn’t a new idea in the dress code debate. In 2012, Stanley Teitel – the then-principal at Stuyvesant High School in New York – defended the the school dress code by telling the student newspaper that, “Many young ladies wear denim skirts which are very tight and are short to begin with, and when they sit down, they only rise up, because there’s nowhere else to go.”

He added:

We don’t need to distract students from what is supposed to be going on here, which is learning.

Apparently girls’ learning is not high on the agenda.

Let’s be honest: rules for boys that prohibit certain kinds of jewelry or hoodies have nothing to do with their sexuality, whereas rules that seek to literally cover women’s bodies absolutely do.

The rules are so disproportionate, they could be a violation of Title IX, the federal law that ensures non-discrimination in educational environments. Alexandra Brodsky, co-founder of Know Your IX, told me, “If women are missing out on opportunities to learn [by being pulled out of class], that looks like a violation to me.”

Brodsky explained that dress code violators could argue that they are being targeted precisely because of their sex: rules about short shorts or spaghetti strap tank tops are aimed directly at women’s attire. There is also an argument to be made, Brodsky said, that targeting, humiliating and disciplining of female students could constitute a hostile environment, “making young women feel that the school isn’t for them.” (In fact, there was just a case earlier this year that argued against a school gender-based dress code using Title IX.)

When I called the Tottenville school superintendent’s office for comment, I was told that no superintendents were in that day. (All the deans at Tottenville High School and the principal were similarly unavailable.) When asked specifically whether the dress code (and its enforcement) were in compliance with Title IX, Marge Feinberg, a NYC Department of Education spokesperson, would only say that the dress code “covers both boys and girls.”

While school administrators figure out how a rule that pulls predominantly girls out of class isn’t sexist, young women are fighting back. Students in Tottenville continue to come to school dressed to break the discriminatory code, and not too far away in New Jersey, a group of young middle school activists are organizing using the hashtag #IAmMoreThanADistraction.

If those young women keep it up, before too long, it will be their principal singled out as the real distraction.


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