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Are school dress codes too hard on girls? ‘We’re not in the 1950s anymore.’

Pasco County plans a ‘deep dive’ on its dress code as other school districts across Florida also wrestle with the issue.
Students arrive at Pasco County's Gulf Middle School for the first day of school in August 2020. Discussions are ongoing whether some of the clothing they wear, such as ripped jeans, are appropriate in the district's dress code.
Students arrive at Pasco County's Gulf Middle School for the first day of school in August 2020. Discussions are ongoing whether some of the clothing they wear, such as ripped jeans, are appropriate in the district's dress code. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published May 8

The Pasco County school district’s dress code is biased against girls, and needs to be fixed.

School Board member Colleen Beaudoin said she’s heard that sentiment from several parents and students recently. But when the time came Tuesday for public comment on the district’s student code of conduct revisions, no one came forward.

So Beaudoin raised the issue herself.

Girls feel body shamed by administrators who enforce rules that primarily target the clothing girls wear, she argued. Meanwhile, she added, students are losing learning time when forced to go find different outfits that meet the arbitrary standards.

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“This is a distraction,” said Beaudoin, who demanded the removal of items that apply to girls only from the list of banned apparel.

Questions about the appropriateness of Pasco’s student dress code have been simmering for nearly a year. Students at Land O’Lakes High School launched a change.org petition in August calling for an end to the “sexism that defines our dress code,” and the school’s advisory committee of parents, staff and community members discussed the topic again earlier this spring.

One of the students’ top concerns: The “unfair” punishment of girls for wearing outfits that are said to distract the boys. They referred to items such as ripped jeans, tights and tank tops.

“Not only does having a dress code sexualize underaged girls bodies, it also insists that our school cares more about our appearance rather than our education,” student Sierra White wrote in the petition.

It’s a debate that has gained increasing attention across Florida in recent weeks.

A Nassau County eighth-grader clashed with her teachers after one told her that her outfit was too revealing. According to a television report, the girl and her mother contended the school targeted girls with more mature bodies in its dress code enforcement, calling it a systemic problem.

A Charlotte County School Board member raised concerns with her colleagues in April that the dress code there unfairly singled out girls’ clothing, and did so in a subjective way. Like Beaudoin in Pasco, the board member noted that the majority of items listed not to wear pertained to girls, suggesting girls are distracting but boys are not, according to a news report.

Parents in St. Johns County began demanding changes to their district dress code in March, calling it unfair and sexist after one school conducted a campus-wide crackdown that netted 31 violations. All were girls. The local newspaper reported that the district was accepting parent input in advance of revising its rules for the coming academic year.

Lori McCandrew, whose two daughters attend Land O’Lakes High School, argued that the Pasco district should take the issue seriously. She said her daughters have been talked to because their shorts haven’t been long enough for their long legs, or because their tops rose to expose their midriff briefly.

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In the car pickup line, she added, she’s seen girls come out in crop tops and tights — things that might violate the rules. She’s noted that boys are allowed to run topless for track activities when it’s hot, while girls get spoken to for wearing non-revealing sports tanks.

“Personally, I’m more offended by the language I hear,” said McCandrew, who sits on the school advisory committee that has been talking about dress code.

From her perspective, it’s time to stop this “ridiculous” effort and just let kids learn.

“We’re not in the 1950s anymore,” she said, adding that she did not believe students go to school to sexualize one another.

A Facebook group focused on Pasco schools recently discussed the dress code issue, after learning that Beaudoin had brought up the topic. Reactions varied from those who wanted a move to uniforms as a way to eliminate differences, to those who didn’t care what kids wear as long as they behave and learn.

Some shared their own children’s experiences with being disciplined over what they saw as unnecessary dress code restrictions, such as ripped jeans. Others said the rules should take into account the reality of current styles, which often don’t meet the district expectations, adding that people need to stop demonizing bare shoulders and legs — particularly in Florida, where it’s hot much of the year.

If there was agreement, it came in the notion that the rules should be applied evenly for all students in all schools.

Superintendent Kurt Browning shared that perspective.

Responding to Beaudoin’s concerns, Browning said he agreed that it appeared much of the dress code aims at girls clothing. He said he had heard of situations where girls are sent home for violations that boys are not, further suggesting that some of the rules aren’t worth battling over.

“We’ve got to ensure that our dress code keeps up with the times,” Browning said. “I don’t have a problem with female students wearing jeans with holes in them. ... It doesn’t expose anything that is inappropriate, male or female.”

Those are just examples that can be deleted, though, he contended. More fundamental, he said, is getting every school to apply the dress code uniformly. Even that can be difficult, he and others noted.

“We are working on that,” Browning said, calling for a “deep dive” on the entire dress code.

Board members agreed with Beaudoin to remove examples that single out girls, or boys, from the dress code, making it neutral in its expectations. They also accepted Browning’s proposal to extend the conversation, with chairman Allen Altman recommending the involvement of students, educators and others who live with the situation daily.

Beaudoin stressed that she isn’t looking to get rid of the dress code altogether. There must be minimum expectations to use when kids try to push the envelope, she said.

But change must come, she insisted.

“Let’s just make it simple and get everyone on the same page,” Beaudoin said. “At least we’re talking about it.”