A group of eighth-grade girls at Fairhaven Middle School say teachers and staff publicly shamed them for wearing dresses deemed inappropriate by the school, sparking protest from classmates who believe the dress code unfairly targets girls.
On March 25, more than a dozen eighth-grade girls showed up to school wearing dresses. It was their way of commemorating a friend who was going to move away within the week. Most of the dresses covered their legs to at least mid-thigh. They wore shirts over the top to cover their arms.
The girls said they were promptly met with disapproval from teachers. Sara Bozorgzad, one of the girls wearing a dress, said a teacher interrupted her first class less than 10 minutes in. The teacher looked for girls wearing a dress, pointed at Bozorgzad and said, “Who is that student?” She then took Bozorgzad to the counselor’s office with the other girls, and they were told they needed to change.
Student Brooke Stavig had to wait 1 1/2 hours for her mom to bring her new clothes. Bozorgzad had clothes in her P.E. locker and changed within half an hour. She said she missed a test that she later had to make up.
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Halley Linscheid, another girl involved, said a teacher told her before school that her dress was “too skimpy.” One counselor said, “nice try girls,” which Linscheid thought was suggesting they were intentionally trying to get away with something. The girls were later told that their outfits were distracting to the school environment, Linscheid said.
“It was probably more distracting to have people come in the room and take people out and come back wearing different outfits,” Linscheid said.
After word spread about the incident, many eighth-graders came to school on Wednesday, April 1, wearing dresses. Sofia Pierson, a student who saw the girls get picked out of class, helped organize the dress protest.
“When I see them being called out for something ridiculous, I have to stand up for another girl, because if I don’t, nobody is,” Pierson said.
School Principal Robert Kalahan admitted that the initial situation was not handled properly. He said the students should not have been called out in front of classmates, and the matter should have been handled in a more respectful, private manner.
“It felt like a public shaming,” Kalahan said. “I completely understand why they felt that way, it’s embarrassing, and it’s definitely something we want to avoid.”
Kalahan found out about the April 1 protest and sent an email to families the day before that said the school was looking at the student-led demonstration as a “great learning opportunity — both for our students and adults.”
The dress code at Fairhaven Middle School states that shorts or skirts should be “no shorter than three inches beyond the fingertips of an extended arm.” Bare midriffs, visible bra straps or cleavage are not allowed, and tank shoulder straps must be 2 1/2 inches wide, or the height of a dollar bill. The student handbook also states that any appearance that “interferes with learning, health, safety or is disruptive to the teaching or learning process” is not permitted.
Shuksan and Kulshan middle school dress codes vary slightly from Fairhaven’s: Kulshan requires skirts to extend beyond one’s pinky finger, and Shuksan does not allow skirts to be “shorter than mid-thigh in length.”
The girls said most of them were not in violation of their school rules. Bozorgzad said a couple of the girls may have worn skirts too short, but she thought it was unfair that the school made all of them change. She said the school never made it clear which students violated the code.
Kalahan said he didn’t think the staff would have reacted the way they did if it were later in the season.
“I don’t think we were ready for spring yet,” Kalahan said. He explained that he would have reviewed expectations regarding the dress code with staff over spring break.
Monika Mahal, the mother of another girl involved, Naya Phillips, said she didn’t believe her daughter’s dress was provocative at all.
“It didn’t even dawn on me that her skirt was too short,” Mahal said.
Mahal said many girls changed into yoga pants. She called the dress code “antiquated and arbitrary” and said the way the situation was handled seemed out of character for the school.
Pierson, the student who helped organize the demonstration Wednesday, said she didn’t think other students were distracted by the dresses until the teachers made it an issue.
Pierson joined the girls in a meeting with the principal a few days after the incident. Kalahan said the girls left his office believing their voices were heard, and he thought they came to an understanding about the dress code and how the incident was handled. But Pierson wasn’t satisfied with the meeting. She stayed up late the night before doing hours of research, believing the school dress code is designed to shame girls’ bodies.
She wanted Kalahan to reconsider the dress code and was disappointed that he didn’t address the possibility of changing it. She hoped the demonstration on Wednesday would make people think about how the rules affect girls.
“Our point was to show that the dress code is biased, and it’s coming at the expense of female expression, and we need it to be more obvious that we’re not out there for other people just to look at,” Pierson said. “We dress for ourselves, and if this is the way we need to show it to people, that we’re not just distractions for other people to see, then this is one way we’re going to have to show it.”