If It Happened to You

Increasingly, I have seen more news articles regarding a student getting in trouble at school for the way they look. From haircuts to exposed collarbones, students are being brought to task for being “distracting” to the other students. So, I began to think about how I would react, if this were to happen to my child.

Just reading the articles, I have been outraged by the stories of girls sent home, or made to wear “shaming” outfits, that spell out their dress code violation. Some of the outfits depicted would have been the most tame in my high school in the ’90s. It all reads very much like The Scarlet Letter – girls made to publicly shame themselves, because their all too alluring legs, cleavage or even collarbones are distracting their classmates. I just can’t fathom how this become something that is really happening in 2015!

I count myself lucky to have all boys. Until you see children being reprimanded for having mohawks, military style buzz cuts or for items printed on their t-shirts. (It’s weird that boy’s collarbones are not deemed too distracting for the classroom… hmmm?)

On top of this, my son’s junior high school has a dress code that only permits khakis, dress pants, button down plain shirts or plain polo shirts. Not even stripes are allowed! (These kids are easily distracted if stripes will do them in!) The initial investment into sound pieces at the beginning of the school year seemed more than worth it to not have to deal with arbitrary “distracting” styles dress codes. Just purchase what is on the list, in the colors allowed, and you can’t go wrong.

So, assume that you, as any normal supermom would, have put a lot of thought into what your child will and will not be allowed to wear. You have approved their haircut, and deemed their school wardrobe as fit for an educational setting. Then, the phone rings and the school has taken issue with your child’s style. What now?

Your first step should be to find out all the details of the school’s complaint against your child’s style. You should definitely request the school’s complaint in writing. If you are asked to come and pick up the child, be sure that you get all the facts before leaving school grounds. It always seems that facts can be muddled after the fact, so be sure you have the issue given to you in the most specific way possible. In my son’s school, students are not allowed to tie their shirts around their waist, so the issue may not be the clothes you bought, but how your child chose to wear it.

Misunderstanding of this nature can be clear up by explaining the dress code to your child again, and asking them to not alter their outfits in a manner not keeping with the dress code. But what if the school staff is not specific about the problem. All too often schools are getting away with reprimanding a student for being “too distracting”. How can you work with such a subjective complaint?

The answer is documentation. School administration tend to be some of the more litigation leery people to interact with. We trust them with our most precious children, and people expect a lot from our educators these days. Sometimes, documentation is all that is required to clear the problem up for school administrations. If you send a letter discussing why your child’s style is important, and should not be excluded from the dress code, they may drop the issue. Parents of the 7-year-old with the mohawk sent a letter from their tribal leader, discussing the haircut as traditional for Native Americans.

I think that in some of these cases, you have to stand up for your child’s right to express themselves and not be censored. If you can not win against the school by making your case with letters and supporting documentation, you may have to get the law on your side.

If your stance is going to be your child’s constitutional right to free speech (via their hairstyle or clothes) here are some things to keep in mind:

  • The courts recognize a student’s rights to free speech. However, they also back the school’s right to control behavior by way of a dress code, so long as they have not set the guidelines for the purpose of censorship.
  • Your child’s expression cannot cause a disruption in the educational process. On the flip side, the school policy can not overly restrict the student’s freedom beyond what is required to meet the educational interests of the school.

If you have questions about whether or not your child’s school policy infringes on your child’s constitutional rights, you may wish to consult an education attorney that can advise you on the specific laws in your state. Keep in mind that there are specific forms of discipline that have been banned in schools in the U.S. These include humiliation and demeaning forms of discipline, like the dunce cap or writing repeated sentences. Some could argue that the dress code sweatpants are akin to the dunce cap.

Contacting an attorney may seem like a leap, but you should always know what your (and your child’s) rights are. That’s what I would do, if it happened to me.

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