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Bellingham middle schools lift dress code restrictions

A group of Fairhaven Middle School girls pose March 25 in the dresses they wore to honor their friend who was moving away. Many of the girls were asked by school officials to change clothes after being told their outfits were a distraction and violated the dress code. The dress code has been changed for fall 2015 to be less restrictive and gender neutral.
A group of Fairhaven Middle School girls pose March 25 in the dresses they wore to honor their friend who was moving away. Many of the girls were asked by school officials to change clothes after being told their outfits were a distraction and violated the dress code. The dress code has been changed for fall 2015 to be less restrictive and gender neutral. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Middle-schoolers will have more freedom to wear what they want when school starts this fall, thanks to a less restrictive, gender-neutral dress code adopted by Bellingham School District.

Fairhaven, Whatcom, Kulshan and Shuksan middle school administrators joined together in recent months to create new clothing requirements to be used in next year’s student handbooks. The collaboration answers concerns that arose from several groups of students this year who questioned what they saw as gender-biased dress codes.

At Fairhaven Middle School, a group of eighth-grade girls said they were publicly shamed by teachers when they came to school wearing dresses to commemorate their friend moving away. Some girls said they were singled out and embarrassed in front of their classmates by a teacher who went through the school looking for any girl wearing a dress.

The girls were told to change. Some of them changed into yoga pants, and others had to wait for over an hour for a change of clothes. A week later, many middle school girls showed up at school wearing dresses, protesting the way the situation had been handled as well as the requirements that they felt targeted girls.

The Fairhaven dress code for the 2014-15 school year prohibited bare midriffs, visible bra straps and cleavage. It also required tank-top shoulder straps to be at least 2 1/2 inches wide, and skirts and shorts were to be “no shorter than 3 inches beyond the fingertips of an extended arm.”

The dress codes at the other middle schools were not consistent. Whatcom required shorts or skirts to extend past one’s fingers; Kulshan required clothing to extend beyond the pinky finger; and Shuksan did not allow skirts to be shorter that mid-thigh in length.

Ann Buswell, assistant principal at Whatcom Middle School, said some students questioned the dress code as part of an assignment in social studies class that simulated the creation of a legislative bill.

“The questions they were asking were very thoughtful and made a lot of sense to me,” Buswell said.

Administrators from all four middle schools met several times over the next few months to come up with a new dress code for all of the schools. It was finalized the last week of school and will be part of all middle school handbooks next year:

▪ Students should dress casually and comfortably for school, while wearing clothing that is well-suited for a school environment.

▪ Clothing will cover torso, midriff and backside, and have sleeves or straps.

▪ Head and face will be uncovered. Appropriate headgear may be worn for warmth and protection outdoors, and inside for religious reasons or special circumstances.

▪ Clothing, drawings, tattoos and accessories that display or promote negative messages are not permitted. Those could include drug, gang, weapon, alcohol or tobacco-related information, obscenities, put-downs, stereotypes, sexual innuendo, or offensive words or graphics.

▪ A violation of the dress code will require a change of clothing.

▪ Special circumstances will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Sofia Pierson, a student who helped organize the dress protest at Fairhaven Middle School on April 1, said students were told a few weeks before school let out for summer that the dress code had been changed. Pierson noticed that girls did not wear skimpier clothes, rather “more clothes in general” because there were more options.

Overall, Pierson was pleased with the changes.

“I think it’s an improvement,” Pierson said. “I thought they were going to keep the restrictions because they didn’t really seem willing, but I was really surprised and happy that they didn’t.”

Robert Kalahan, Fairhaven Middle School principal, said he was happy with the direction the school was taking with the dress code. He was part of the team of administrators who helped change it.

“It was a good process, and a lot of the thoughtful student and staff input from Fairhaven Middle School influenced our work sessions.” Kalahan said. “Our next steps after summer break will be to work as a staff and with students about these expectations and the importance of personal dress and appearance that encourages a positive learning environment for all genders.”

Discussions among the administrators did not focus on the handling of dress code violations, Buswell said. Each school can handle those situations how they see fit, though Buswell said nobody wants to embarrass students.

No dress code is perfect, Buswell said, but administrators consider it a step in the right direction.

“I think it reflects our community and what we feel is important,” Buswell said. “It may not be perfect, but it’s been thoughtfully done.”

Reach Wilson Criscione at 360-756-2803 or wilson.criscione@bellinghamherald.com.

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