How Our Students Pushed Us to Rethink the Dress Code

When we reached the point in the pandemic when students could return to in-person learning, we wanted to make them feel like they could come back to the safest, most welcome space possible. We did away with rules about hats and headphones. We did away with all kinds of things in order to extend grace and comfort, but we didn’t revisit the official dress code. In fact, we had not looked at the dress code in the student handbook for almost two and a half years – and, even back then, we didn’t do our due diligence in enlisting student voices to shape it. 

Early this school year, I made a misstep with my students that opened up the door to powerful learning for our whole school community. Our staff had been noticing that some of our female students were wearing shirts showing a lot of their midriff, and I made a hasty comment about the students needing to be more thoughtful about their shirts. As you can imagine, the comment was not received well. My students had given me the gift of a major learning moment, and I was eager to honor it. 

In the conversation I had inadvertently begun, we heard loud and clear that our students wanted to reconsider our dress code policy in its entirety. Our school community has learned that, when we overlook student voices, we end up being inconsistent in our values – and that can compromise the learning space in ways we didn’t anticipate. What followed was an opportunity to give students a bigger hand in shaping important school decisions.

The first step was making sure our students felt heard.

To create space for our students to express their thinking, we organized a town hall. I reached out to invite specific classes that I knew were discussing our dress code – including our government class, our women’s studies class and a particular math class. Beyond that outreach, the invitation was open to everyone. About 80 students came.

The students spoke, and I listened. They had a lot of valid concerns about the policy: How had it been created? Whose voices had been heard? Whose had not been heard? Students shared that they felt like the dress code was created for a certain population of students, and that it didn’t value how different groups of people express their identities and cultures. Students said they felt the dress code had only been considered through a white lens, and an especially important “aha” moment for me was when students pointed out that the dress code was created with only two genders in mind, and students who identified as gender-fluid or non-binary didn’t feel seen. 

After the students had a chance to speak, they turned to me and said, “What are you going to do about it, Ms. Thomas?” And I said, “The real question is what are we going to do about it?” Listening to their important ideas and powerful voices, it was so clear: Gone are the days when school leaders could sit behind our doors and write policy without making space for students to shape it. 

Next, we created a structure that would allow students an avenue to inform a new policy. 

Out of that town hall meeting grew a Social Justice Advisory Council, created to address the first issue at hand – our dress code policy – but with a commitment to continuing to collaborate around additional school structures. Throughout the process, our goal has been to provide a safe space so students can share their perspectives and then identify areas where our school can work to improve our culture, operations and environment – to ensure we’re creating the conditions for all students to experience excellence. That is the root of the connection between our dress code and social justice issues in our community. 

Our goal is to have a revision of the policy ready for students, along with staff leaders, to present to the instructional leadership team, and then to revise it based on feedback so they can end up with a new policy we can implement.

While we’re still on this journey with our students, I’m proud of the progress we’re making and the way our students are taking ownership. I want to share some of the elements that have been key to our process in uplifting student voices in all school policy decisions:

1. Bring in a guest facilitator.

I wanted to be part of the conversation about the dress code. I didn’t want to create a space where students felt like I was facilitating and engaging, because there needs to be a delineation between the person facilitating the work and those engaged in the work. I enlisted the support of one of our district leaders to facilitate, and that has helped me to be fully present with the process of uncovering our blind spots. 

2. Establish shared norms and agreements.

We didn’t jump into problem solving immediately. We spent, quite honestly, the first two meetings establishing our norms and how we would engage together, what we expected from one another, and what we needed from one another to participate in the process. It was incredibly important not to rush this stage, because we didn’t want anybody to leave the space without feeling valued and heard. On top of that, we wanted to instill confidence that we were going to create something new together – not simply come together and talk but act on what was said. 

3. Use a framework to focus discussion.

There are five equity questions that our school system has utilized to help us as leaders engage in the conversation around any of our policies or practices. And so we used these questions to frame our collaborative work with students around our dress code policy:

  • Whom does this practice serve or neglect?
  • Whose voices are dominating or lacking?
  • What adverse impacts or unintended consequences could result from this decision? 
  • What steps are in place for ongoing data collection and reflection on the outcomes?
  • How diverse are the stakeholders leading the implementation?

From there we asked students to write down their responses on Post-it notes and put them on the walls underneath each of the questions. We took the Post-it notes and then created a summary that outlined all of what we heard students saying.

4. Be transparent about what’s possible.

In order to collaborate, it was important to empower our students with real information. They had access to the student handbook and the written dress code, but that wasn’t quite enough to have the conversation we needed to have. They needed to understand the context that the staff and the broader school district are working within. And so I explained early on that whatever recommendations we came up with had to work in concert with our school system’s policies. Once that was on the table, students could focus their feedback and ideas and be more active in finding solutions we could actually implement. And they’ve done a beautiful job. 

A second facet of transparency is making sure to communicate next steps. Our students know that our work together is moving toward a proposal that they’ll present directly to our leadership team. And they understand that there will have to be an approval process. But because we’ve made those steps clear in our planning together, students have been able to stay invested and feel both heard and valued as full collaborators. 

We’re continuing to find the way forward together. 

While it’s too early to say what the outcome of our collaboration will be, I’m extremely hopeful. Our school system has already taken amazing steps toward examining our policies through the lens of building a welcoming and safe learning environment for all. After considering the dress code, our students are interested in interrogating our advisory program, and also in opening up border conversations about race and inequity in our school community. Inviting our students to participate more fully will increase our chances of success in every facet of social justice and equity. 

It’s through listening, affirming and acting on those perspectives that we can really live our values as a school community – and create a safe and welcoming learning space for every student. 

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