Cynthia M. Allen

Austin school dress code tries to take ‘onus off the body’ but leaves kids more exposed

My kids are not in school yet, so the assorted emotions that overwhelm parents — from elation to dread — as July turns into August and the summer’s end is nigh haven’t started plaguing me.

Of all the feelings my local parent-friends experience in the lead-up to a new school year, one worry I never hear is concern over what their child will wear when classes begin. That’s because despite being public, Fort Worth ISD has a pretty strict dress code — essentially a uniform — that in this outsider’s opinion, makes preparing for school (at least in terms of dress) a fairly easy and painless task.

For children pre-K through 8th grade, the parameters are narrow: Clothing worn to school is color-limited (navy or white for tops, and blue, khaki or black bottoms), must fit correctly (no droopy drawers around here), be unembellished and appropriate in all the ways one would expect (meaning not too short or too low-cut).

But the rules have some reasonable flexibility, allowing children to wear denim bottoms, different styles of tops and athletic shoes — stuff they probably have in their closets anyway.

(The standard of dress for high schoolers is less stringent but still requires students to dress respectfully.)

And as I understand it, most schools have community closets where children in need of an extra shirt or skirt or pair of pants can partake.

No parent of a public school kid should have to go out and purchase a new wardrobe for their child; because the FWISD dress code is both simple and practical, that should never be the case.

I like uniform dress codes for the same reasons President Bill Clinton supported them in the 1990s.

Some studies suggest they reduce school violence and improve test scores, attendance and punctuality. While those findings are open to reasonable debate, the overarching idea that uniform dress focuses students on things other than what they’re wearing — like school — is as logical as it is compelling.

And when should setting high expectations for young people, including in how they present themselves (tucking in their shirts, keeping private body parts private) be a bad thing?

When we expect more from our kids, they expect more from themselves.

So why not require them to dress in a way that not only conveys respect for their environment and the people around them, but respect for themselves and their own bodies?

Because apparently, such thinking is “vague, arbitrary, sexist and racist”, at least according to critics of the Austin school district.

It would seem that the district agrees. Earlier this summer, the school board voted to modify its dress code, in a stated attempt to ensure students aren’t being disciplined for clothing choices based on gender or gender identity, race, religion, sexual orientation or body type.

“Assumptions are that the girl’s body is a problem,” said Elleanor Chin, co-writer of the “Oregon NOW model” after which AISD’s policy is modeled.

Apparently allowing them to expose more of it is the solution.

Practically speaking, students can now wear halter tops, spaghetti straps, leggings and ripped jeans. The can show waistbands and straps on undergarments. Hats and hoodies with the hood up are allowed, as long as the face and ears are visible. Even pajamas are fair game. And the policy is gender-free, meaning boys can wear skirts, because why not?

The only real restrictions on clothing are those depicting drugs, expressing hate or violent speech or images and any accessories that could be used as a weapon. Oh, and the “abdomen, genitals, buttocks, breasts and nipples” still must be fully covered with opaque fabric, although that’s not setting a particularly high standard.

“Our goal was to take the onus off of the body,” Chin said.

But letting kids expose more of their bodies seems to have the opposite effect. It’s kind of all about the body, isn’t it?

How exactly this will improve the school environment in any discernible way — test scores, attendance, school pride, personal pride — remains to be seen, or frankly even explained.

But in a culture in which self-expression is valued above all else, it isn’t a surprising development.

FWISD, no stranger to controversy, hasn’t jumped on the “dump the dress codes” bandwagon. Will it? I hope not anytime soon.

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Cynthia Allen joined the Star-Telegram Editorial Board in 2014 after a decade of working in government and public affairs in Washington, D.C. She is a member of the Editorial Board and writes a weekly opinion column on a wide array of topics, including politics, faith and motherhood.
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