Ferndale students protest Vista Middle School dress code

Vista Middle School students wear dresses, shorts and leggings in a protest of the school dress code on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015. Nathalia Bartosz, wearing the yellow dress in the middle, was forced to change clothes.
Vista Middle School students wear dresses, shorts and leggings in a protest of the school dress code on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015. Nathalia Bartosz, wearing the yellow dress in the middle, was forced to change clothes. The Bellingham Herald

Parents and students are questioning the Vista Middle School dress code after several eighth-grade girls said they were unfairly forced to change out of clothes deemed too distracting for boys.

In a protest of the dress code Thursday, Sept. 10, a group of nearly a dozen girls showed up to school wearing yoga pants, dresses and shorts — the same kind of outfits they’ve been told to change earlier.

Those girls also wrote a letter to the principal earlier in the week asking the school to reconsider the dress code. The school bans yoga pants and tights unless they are covered by another layer, and requires dresses, skirts and shorts to extend to a person’s fingertips when their arms are down at their sides. Jeans with holes are not allowed; neither are bare shoulders, strapless tops or bare backs.

The girls are frustrated with more than those requirements, however. Grace Talley, an eighth-grader at the middle school, said they have just as many issues with how it’s being enforced as with the dress code itself.

“It’s the fact that they’re enforcing it because we’re a distraction,” Talley said. “They’re saying we’re stopping the boys from getting an education.”

Brian Talley, her dad, said he visited with school administrators last spring because Grace was told she had to change out of a pair of running shorts that were an inch too short.

The school told him they were having problems with boys sexually harassing girls, he said, and one administrator made the message clear: “There wouldn’t be sexual harassment if the girls weren’t wearing the clothes they’re wearing.”

The comments left Brian Talley baffled.

“If a boy is sexually harassing my daughter for having a hole in her jeans,” he said, “let’s deal with the boy.”

Vista Middle School officials referred all reporter questions to the district office.

Paul Douglas, the district’s executive director of human resources, said he was not aware of any statements made by either the principal or assistant principal that blamed the girls being sexually harassed.

“The issue of sexual harassment is much deeper than what a person wears. It’s a much greater issue than that,” Douglas said. “If somebody said that, then (parents) can share that information with me and I can look into that.”

Douglas saw what the girls were wearing on Thursday and said the dresses, leggings and shorts were “very appropriate.”

Yet the girls said that throughout the day staff at the school still made comments about what they wore. At least one student, Nathalia Bartosz, was brought into the principal’s office and told she had to change because her dress was too short and exposed her shoulders.

The girls were inspired to stand up for themselves after a group of girls at Fairhaven Middle School in Bellingham held a dress protest last school year. Months after that, the Bellingham School District enacted a gender-neutral dress code.

Parents say this year Vista Middle School girls are being disciplined for what they’re wearing more than ever.

“I think it’s odd the way the school is approaching it,” said parent Stefanie Hickok. “It’s reached a point where it’s too much.”

Hickok’s daughter, Kayla, is the one who wrote the letter to the school principal earlier this week with the help of the other girls.

The letter implores the school to reconsider the dress code because the current requirements “make us, girls, feel guilty for having a body.”

“When you tell a girl to change or even send her home because of something she is wearing, calling it a ‘distraction to males,’ you are telling her that she has to change for other people, you are telling her she can’t choose what she wants to wear freely and that her decisions are ‘wrong,’ you are telling her that a boy having a distraction-free learning environment is more important to her than her education,” the letter reads.

Anneliese Tipps said she hopes the staff’s attitude at Vista will change. Her daughter, Harper, went to Horizon Middle School in the same district until this school year. She said they never ran into any issues with the way Harper dressed at Horizon, but since she’s transferred to Vista this year she’s been told to change multiple times after violating the dress code — one time for having a hole in her jeans, another time for wearing black jeggings.

Douglas said the school principal, Kim Hawes, met with a couple of the students this week in response to the letter. He said the school has come up with a plan to review the dress code, which was updated last year, and create focus groups with the students to find a solution. He commended the girls for taking initiative on the matter.

“The main thing is that when students and parents bring up an issue of concern, I think it’s important to collaborate on resolving that issue,” Douglas said.

Brian Talley hopes the school takes what the girls are saying seriously.

“They’re over the top,” Talley said, “and these girls are starting to get frustrated.”

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