The Los Altos School District Board of Trustees is on the cusp of approving a new, districtwide dress code, aimed at being gender-neutral and equitable to all students.
At last week’s meeting, the board reviewed language for the dress code, formally known as the “student dress and grooming” policy, that would apply to all students across the district. Currently, each school determines its own policies around student attire.
According to Superintendent Jeff Baier, the goal was to create “a policy that allowed for … freedom of expression in dress, but also ensured that we have a safe learning environment.”
The new policy, which would take effect next school year, states, “All students should be able to dress comfortably for school without fear of discipline or body shaming, as such dress code enforcement should be the least restrictive and disruptive to the student’s school day.”
The dress code lays out guidelines on what students can and cannot wear, including that “fabric covering all private parts must not be see-through” and that tops “must have fabric in the front, back and on the sides.” Although clothing must cover undergarments, waistbands and bra straps are excluded.
That’s different from the status quo, where some schools have restrictions on specific types of clothing. At Egan Junior High School, for example, the handbook posted online, which is from last school year, states that tank tops must cover the bra strap and hemlines should reach mid-thigh or 6 inches above the knee.
The new policy also protects students’ ability to dress “in a manner consistent with their gender identity or gender expression or with their religious or cultural observance.” In compliance with a state law passed last year, the policy states that students can’t be discriminated against “based on hair texture and protective hairstyles, including, but not limited to, braids, locks, and twists.”
According to board president Bryan Johnson, the purpose of the new policy is to ensure the focus is on the learning environment rather than aesthetic considerations.
“Aesthetics for aesthetics sake is not why we have a dress code,” Johnson said. “We have a dress code to make it clear that students need to come dressed in a way that is consistent with the kind of learning environment that we’re trying to establish at our schools.”
The discussion around creating an updated, districtwide dress code was sparked last March when the board was reviewing school safety plans. The documents, which are specific to each school, cover topics ranging from emergency and disaster planning to hate crime reporting procedures.
Dress codes are among the issues addressed. The documents stated that the district did not currently have a dress code, but also included “inappropriate attire” on a list of prohibited conduct.
Trustee Jessica Speiser, who was then board president, said at the time that more definition was needed around what constituted “inappropriate attire” and added that it was important the restriction wasn’t applied disproportionately to girls.
She and other trustees at the meeting said they had heard anecdotally of girls being “dress-coded” for having exposed bra straps or wearing shorts deemed too short.
Speiser said in an interview last week that it was important to her that the district have a dress code that is gender-neutral and nondiscriminatory. Dress codes in districts throughout the country have garnered attention for how they can disproportionately affect women, LGBT students and people of color.
“I am done with everything being blamed on the girls,” Speiser said of traditional dress codes. “If it’s distracting to boys, we need to teach the boys not to be distracted.”
Instead, she said the appropriate role of a dress code is to ensure students’ attire is safe for the activities they are participating in and doesn’t offend others. The new policy requires that clothing be suitable for all scheduled activities, including PE and science labs. It also prohibits clothing that features hate speech, is sexually explicit or depicts alcohol, tobacco, marijuana or other controlled substances.
Creating the policy
In drafting the districtwide dress code, Director of Student and Staff Services Erin Green reviewed other districts’ policies, as well as sample language from the California School Boards Association.
She also met with groups of students at both junior high schools, as well as some elementary schools. They were shown draft language and asked for feedback.
“Students really had positive things to say,” Green said. “They liked that it gave them some autonomy in what they wanted to wear.”
In particular, she said students noted that it wasn’t biased based on gender, treated kids equally, wasn’t punitive and protected students’ ability to express themselves religiously and culturally.
The staff leadership team, which includes principals and other administrators, came to a consensus on the policy’s language, Green said.
Assuming the board formally signs off on the policy, the district will work to educate staff, students and parents about the new guidelines. According to Baier, district administrators will review the policy with principals to develop a plan for its implementation and work to ensure consistency across sites.
The board plans to have final approval of the plan on the agenda for its Monday meeting.