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Dignity, Discipline, and Dress Codes at School: Brooklyn Youth Make the Case for Equity

Youth-led movements on a global and national scale are often associated with a few familiar faces, like climate activist Greta Thunberg and March for Our Lives leaders Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg.

But youth advocates—especially youth of color—are increasingly the center of movements on local issues, including here in Brooklyn. These activists, like members of our Invest in Youth grantee Girls for Gender Equity (GGE), are taking on a source of major injustice they face every day in their own schools.

GGE’s new policy brief “Suspending Self Expression” examines the link between school dress codes in NYC public schools and school pushout—and the disproportionate impact it has on Black and Latinx young women and gender non-conforming/non-binary (GNC/NB) youth.

GGE found that young girls of color and GNC/NB youth are pushed out of school and into the school-to-prison-pipeline due to overly harsh or humiliating punishments for violating dress code rules as interpreted by a teacher or administrator.

Principals determine each school’s dress code. They receive guidance from the Department of Education (DOE) via Chancellor Regulations, which advises that the maximum consequence for not wearing a uniform is a parent conference, and for wearing “unsafe or disruptive attire” is an “in-school response,” such as a restorative conference.

But policy isn’t practice. GGE reviewed 100 dress codes in 50 middle and 50 high schools in New York City and found that 53 incorporated written consequences for dress code violations, including: calling parents, requiring that students change clothes, and removing students from class. In eight dress codes there is an explicit threat of suspension from school. One required a student to wear a “dress code violation tag” for the day. Overall, the written consequences are “far more punitive than the guidance offered by DOE.”

The DOE also issued Guidelines on Gender Inclusion which state, “dress codes must be written, enforced, and applied equally to all students regardless of gender and must be free of gender stereotypes. Yet prohibitions on gendered dress showed up across NYC public school dress codes. Schools banned gendered dress like “crop tops,” “halter tops,” “short shorts,” “mini skirts,” as well as the overarching “distracting” dress. 

The subjective language of dress codes also leaves them open to interpretation by school staff that disproportionately affects Black and Latinx girls and GNC/NB youth. GGE’s report highlights prohibitions on wigs “that will impair a staff member or safety agent’s ability to identify that student,” “excessive” or “oversized” jewelry, and “tight” or “form fitting” clothing. 

The report also includes stories of school staff blaming girls’ appearance for the sexual harassment they experience. “Whatever the intent, dress codes will never prevent sexual harassment,” the GGE briefing argues, adding: “policing student attire to ‘prevent’ sexual violence perpetuates rape culture.” 

GGE activists are calling for the DOE to address the root causes of sexual violence in school by “investing in cultures of consent where all students feel safe and affirmed.”

They are also asking the DOE to end the use of exclusions and removals as responses to dress code violations. This will keep more young women, trans people, and GNC/NB people in school and out of the school-to-prison-pipeline. “Discipline should never be used as an excuse to exclude,” says Ashley Stewart, Director of Policy and Government Relation at GGE.

Stewart says the bravery shown by the young people she works with at GGE inspires her every day and informs the intergenerational activism at GGE.

“[The youth activists at GGE] get up and make the choice to go to school where they put up with so much. There are metal detectors where they have to take out every single bobby pin. They are being told that the way they show up to school is not good enough, but they still demand their voices be heard. They inspire me just by being their full authentic selves. And even when they choose not to be, when they’re still just trying to figure stuff out. It’s constant accountability.”

Youth organizing works and their efforts are already inspiring change:  New York City Council member Brad Lander introduced legislation in January demanding that schools report their dress codes and how they are enforced. The first report will be due in August of this year.

Get to know the powerful work being done by Girls for Gender Equity by reading their “Suspending Self Expression” policy brief. Read more about Council member Brad Lander’s legislation to eliminate gender-biased school dress codes here.

Mars Ikeda

Communications Intern
GGE found that young girls of color and GNC/NB youth are pushed out of school and into the school-to-prison-pipeline due to overly harsh or humiliating punishments for violating dress code rules as interpreted by a teacher or administrator.