When school dress codes discriminate

On Behalf of | Feb 22, 2023 | Civil Rights

Whether your child attends a public or private school, chances are the school’s policies include some form of dress code. Schools implement dress codes for a variety of reasons, including keeping students safe and avoiding distractions in the classroom.

Sometimes, however, clothing policies unfairly target certain demographics.

Racial and religious discrimination

Often, dress codes include rules about hairstyles. Such policies might prohibit certain styles, such as locs, hair extensions or braids, deeming them a distraction. School officials might claim that the dress code policy applies to all students equally, but the reality is that rules about hairstyles often affect black students disproportionately.

Rules about head coverings can be a source of religious discrimination. While it is common for schools to prohibit hats in the classroom, dress code policies should make exceptions for religious head coverings, such as hijabs.

Sex-based discrimination

When it comes to acceptable school attire, girls often face more scrutiny than boys. Many dress codes address the modesty of girls’ clothing, including stipulations about length, tightness, sleeves and necklines, while including no such restrictions for boys.

Boys can also face gender discrimination from dress codes that ban male students from having long hair or wearing earrings.

Impact of discrimination

Students accused of violating the dress code often have to leave the classroom. When teachers and school officials target the same students for repeated violations, these students miss out on learning opportunities. Biases in school dress codes can make students feel ostracized and less safe.

School dress codes serve a valuable purpose, but school officials must draft and enforce such policies carefully to avoid discrimination.


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