Keauna Blakely was a freshman in high school the first time she was told her outfit was a distraction.
Blakely didn’t think the clothes she picked out — a skirt, covered by a sweater that hung down to her knees — violated Ferndale High School’s dress code. The staff member who pulled Blakely out of class, however, told her she either needed to change clothes or go home.
It’s a story similar to others expressed by several girls in Whatcom County this year. Those stories have been the focus of student protests that have led to Bellingham and Ferndale school districts rethinking dress codes. Other schools in the county have made no changes.
“It really makes me feel like the school doesn’t care about my education and that all they care about is if the boys are doing well,” Blakely said.
For some students, the dress code and the way it’s enforced reflects not only a problem in the school guidelines, but a culture where women are blamed for how others view their bodies.
14 out of 22 public middle schools or high schools in Whatcom County outline length required for dresses, skirts or shorts.
“It sends a terrible message not only to girls about their bodies, but also to boys about their ability to interact with girls,” said Mary Metzger, a professor of English and women, gender, and sexuality studies at Western Washington University. “It’s suggesting a norm or standard that the girl’s bodies are sinful, shameful or problematic and disruptive, and that consequently any behavior on the part of anyone else in response to their bodies is their fault.”
Students want fewer restrictions
Out of 22 public middle schools or high schools in Whatcom County, 14 outline the length required for dresses, skirts and shorts. Seven of those schools use fingers or fingertips as a marker of how long clothes should extend.
The new middle school dress code in Bellingham, which was changed after students at Fairhaven Middle School protested earlier this year, doesn’t mention anything about the length of skirts or dresses, but states clothing should cover a student’s torso, midriff and backside.
Sofia Pierson, one of the students who led the protest at Fairhaven Middle School, was happy with the way it changed.
“People my age are starting to realize there’s no big issue with how we dress and there’s no reason to make it such a big deal,” she said.
Bellingham’s Options High School, however, has one of the more restrictive dress codes in the county. The code explicitly prohibits excessive holes in clothing, exposed cleavage, baggy pants, and skirts that are shorter than the student’s fingertips when arms are extended.
The idea of promoting a policy that avoids helping kids develop their own understanding of the world, that fails to reckon with their knowledge of the world and their developing ability to interpret contexts and make their own choices, is bound to face resistance and ultimately fail to help youth.
Mary Metzger, Western Washington University professor
Byron Gerard, the school’s principal, said the code is not necessarily more restrictive but is more detailed.
“The staff here feels like the more details you can give students to guide them, probably the better,” he said.
Vista Middle School in Ferndale is another school with relatively more restrictions. Under the current requirements, bare shoulders cannot be showing, yoga pants can be worn only if they are covered, and holes or strings in pants are not allowed.
At Lynden High School, where the dress code is similar, Assistant Principal Lisa McKeen said part of the mission for public schools is to get kids ready for the workforce and give guidelines without dictating what kids can or cannot wear.
Metzger, the WWU professor, questioned the workforce they think the policies are promoting.
“The idea of promoting a policy that avoids helping kids develop their own understanding of the world, that fails to reckon with their knowledge of the world and their developing ability to interpret contexts and make their own choices, is bound to face resistance and ultimately fail to help youth,” Metzger said.
Changes in the works
Bellingham School District plans to change the high school dress code after implementing a districtwide, gender-neutral middle school dress code over the summer. Ferndale School District, too, is looking at changing dress codes for all of its schools.
After the Vista Middle School students spoke out earlier this year about the dress code, students at a student advisory committee meeting reviewed a draft dress code that was developed by students, staff and parents at Vista.
The draft states that skin should be covered from mid-thigh to chest, and that shirts should have straps. Mid-thigh is defined as full-arm length with a closed fist for shorts, and full-arm length with fingers extended for skirts.
The draft code was developed by the Vista community only. The district hopes to have a districtwide dress code, which may or may not be similar to the draft, in place by next year.
Payton Hansen, a junior at Windward High School, is a student school board member for Ferndale School District and was a part of the student advisory committee.
“Consistency is really important because it’s going to ensure that certain kids don’t get special treatment,” Hansen said. “I just think it makes it easier to not have people feel singled out.”
Most dress codes at the high school level in Bellingham allow staff to decide if skirts or shorts are long enough. Other dress codes, like the one at Meridian High School, are more vague, only saying there are to be “no short skirts,” without specifying what “short” means.
I feel like as long as a sexual organ isn’t showing, then it shouldn’t really matter that much.
Keauna Blakely, Ferndale High School student
Bellingham High School, in fact, doesn’t have a written dress code. The school says its collective commitments guide conversations with students, according to district spokeswoman Jackie Brawley.
Blakely, the Ferndale High student, said she would prefer fewer restrictions in dress codes.
“I feel like as long as a sexual organ isn’t showing, then it shouldn’t really matter that much,” she said.
The notion that clothes can be a distraction to the learning environment may stem from a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1969.
In Tinker v. Des Moines, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that three students who wore black armbands to school in protest of the Vietnam War had a constitutional right of freedom of speech while in public schools. Part of the reasoning behind the ruling was that wearing the armbands did not involve any disorder or disturbance and was unlikely to disrupt the school.
To be perfectly honest, I don’t think this issue has been at the top of everybody’s list for quite a while.
Linda Quinn, Ferndale School District superintendent
That language means schools can forbid conduct that would interfere with the operation of the school. Metzger said too often that means girls are told their clothes, or their bodies, are distracting others.
“Creating a healthy learning environment for students means treating students with respect,” Metzger said. “It doesn’t mean telling students that the way they are presenting themselves is shameful and harmful to other people.”
And some girls think boys aren’t equally punished for wearing revealing clothes. Blakely said one boy at Ferndale High recently wore nothing but boxers and a shirt to school all day, and nobody said anything to him.
“He wanted to see if he could get in trouble, because all the girls get in trouble for stupid stuff,” Blakely said.
She said that even if dress codes are changed to become gender neutral, teachers still need to make sure they don’t unfairly target girls.
Ferndale School District Superintendent Linda Quinn said rather than disciplining kids, schools should help them make smart choices.
“It’s important to have conversations with young women about what they want to portray,” she said. “I’m not convinced that strict codes teach. They become something to rebel against rather than become a conversation about what the message is that you want to send.”
Yet there still are problems with that approach, Metzger said.
“Programs and policies that target women’s clothing choices as a measure of what they ‘portray’ tells them that they, and indeed their very bodies, are responsible for the choices of others,” Metzger said. “Such an approach — even when presented with the intention to improve the lives of girls and women — is often described by some as promoting ‘rape culture.’”
The discussion within school districts about dress codes, it seems, may just be getting started. Quinn said Ferndale did not have much conversation on the topic until the protest at Vista Middle School earlier this year.
“To be perfectly honest, I don’t think this issue has been at the top of everybody’s list for quite a while,” Quinn said. “Now this has surfaced, and so now we’ll have some conversations about it and recalibrate how we’re enforcing it.”