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BUHS dress code protest stopped, but issues linger

Students complain that school policy unfairly targets female students

BRATTLEBORO—June 12 marked the day of a protest against a regional high school’s dress code. The protest didn’t happen.

According to sources, a group of female students planned activities to express their frustration with Brattleboro Union High School’s (BUHS) dress code, last updated in 2004.

The day before the protest, however, the group received news that an unnamed student told Dean of Students Kate Margaitis that the young women were planning, not a protest, but a riot.

Fear of the school’s response managed to silence most, if not all, of the group’s plans.

The young women said that the code disproportionately targets female students, that staff enforce rules inconsistently ― students perceived by teachers “good students” rarely receive reprimands ― and requires too many layers of clothes during warmer months spent in the un-air conditioned classrooms.

The young women said that a female student may receive a reprimand for wearing a shirt with spaghetti straps because it exposes her bra straps, a no-no under the dress code. A male student wearing a shirt with phrases the young women felt offensive, however, did not receive a reprimand.

One young woman, who wished to remain anonymous, said that the female students are often told that they must ensure their outfits don’t distract the male students.

This raises a few questions.

Why are female students expected to be responsible for the behavior of their male peers?

Aren’t the young men ― and all students ― in high school expected to develop self-discipline and respect for their peers regardless of outfits?

A young woman added that some male students have been asked to change out of clothes considered too feminine.

This raises another question: What’s wrong with feminine clothing?

In the weeks leading up to June 12, the group of an estimated 100 young women ― an exact head count is unknown ― discussed and debated the dress code.

They decided to stage a protest and discussed how best to support each other.

Fellow female students quickly quelled a handful of calls for destructive action. The group agreed that they wanted to make the point that they could wear what they pleased without the school dissolving into chaos.

They also wanted the administration and teachers to take them seriously. The young women stressed that acting out in anger would not help the group reach either of their goals.

It’s unclear if the young women planning to protest last week were afraid the administration would call the police to control the “riot,” or if the administration did not intend to call the police. Either way, the young women felt afraid of heavy reprimands from the school administration and downsized their protest.

BUHS #6 Board of Directors Chair Robert “Woody” Woodworth said that, in his experience, the BUHS administration enforces the dress code fairly.

BUHS Principal Steve Perrin echoed Woodworth’s statements, saying he believes that the administration and dress code are not targeting any group.

In Perrin’s view, the dress code is meant to balance the desire of the students to express themselves with the need to dress appropriately for the situation, like the classroom or the workplace.

Woodworth admits that enforcing the code comes with challenges.

“It’s a lot to supervise when you have that many kids,” he said.

Perrin said has not heard of female students needing to change clothes because their outfits distracted their male peers.

Woodworth added that clothing, however, could distract everyone, including other female students or teachers.

The dress code used by BUHS, detailed at bit.ly/1pYBcor, states that, “The board of Brattleboro Union High School District #6 recognizes that students’ mode of dress and grooming is a manifestation of their personal style and individual preference. Our decisions regarding dress are based on the need to foster a climate conductive to a caring learning environment that nurtures personal growth and promotes safety, security, and positive attitudes.

“Paramount to this effort is the expectation that students dress appropriately for the school setting,” continued the dress code LBP 1. “Apparel that draws undue attention to the wearer can detract from the educational process and is therefore inappropriate.”

The code states that the students are prohibited from dress or grooming practices that present a hazard to the health and safety of the student and others, materially interfere with schoolwork or create disorder, cause excessive wear or damage to school property — think spiked dog collars — block or restrict movement or vision, or obscure a student’s identity.

General rules in the code also prohibit clothing displaying designs, words, or symbols that convey offensive, vulgar, profane, violent, gang-affiliated, sexually explicit, or sexually suggestive messages. Clothing promoting tobacco alcohol, or illegal drugs are also prohibited.

Of the 10 bulleted apparel rules, four specifically refer to women’s clothing, such as “the cut of sleeveless garments must not expose undergarments.” In other words, bras.

Five of the apparel rules could refer to both women’s and men’s clothing. The female students, however, said that the school seems to only target the female students when enforcing rules for both sexes.

The male students walk around showing boxers all the time, said the young women. The rule that skirts or shorts must be long enough to reach the tips of the fingers is more often applied to the female students as well.

Niche, a website that reviews neighborhoods, colleges, and K-12 schools, had four reviews related to the BUHS dress code posted last year.

The four people posting were listed as three high school seniors and one recent alumnus. It is unclear from the website whether the posts came from one or four individuals.

The post from “A Recent Alumnus,” stood out. Referring to school leadership, the post stated, “These people did not work together very well, and there was always some sort of commotion because nothing worked smoothly.”

The post continued, “The administrators were all male, and so they got to choose which girls were pretty enough to be allowed to break the dress code, and which girls would get in trouble for breaking the same rules. It was very unfair. Once, a boy even got a detention for wearing girls [sic] jeans.”

After the group of young women learned that a student had told the dean of students to expect a riot, the young protesters shifted gears.

In the first rendition of the protest, the young women planned to meeting in the student parking lot wearing outfits in which they felt comfortable regardless of how the clothes conformed with the dress code.

Together, the young women would walk into the school. If members of administration or teachers issued reprimands, the young women agreed to calmly return with questions of their own like, “is what I’m wearing making you uncomfortable?”

They knew the action could have consequences.

According to sources, some of the young women asked permission of their parents to attend the protest. Parents spoken to by The Commons said they supported their daughters’ making a statement.

One parent said that she sees what her two daughters wear to school every day. She feels their outfits are appropriate for school. The younger daughter, however, is often told to change because her shirt showed too much cleavage.

In the parent’s opinion, her younger daughter is reprimanded more often compared to her older daughter because she has a large bust and anything short of a turtleneck shows cleavage.

To avoid appearing to “riot,” the young women scaled down their protest. The group decided against walking into the school together. To their chosen noncompliance outfits they would add messages about what they thought needed to change about the dress code or other positive statements.

If a member of staff pulled one of the young women aside and asked them to change, the young women intended, first, to gracefully accept the teacher’s request. Members of the group also encouraged those who had not been pulled aside for their outfits to stand up for other protesters by asking the staff member: if this student, why not me too?

It is unclear if any of the young women decided to protest.

A survey obtained by The Commons, however, points to the school also looking at the dress code. According to the brief survey, a committee composed of the school board is reviewing the dress code and wants student feedback.

The survey asked for each student’s grade and gender, if they were aware of the dress code’s contents, their top three concerns about the dress code, and if anyone was interested in serving on a student panel to provide detailed feedback.

When asked about the survey, Woodworth said that the board’s policy committee cycles all school policies through a review schedule. The committee has scheduled the dress code for review over the summer and into the fall of the coming school year.

“It’s definitely time to revisit the policy,” he said.

He added that the board intends to continue taking feedback from students and BUHS staff during the review process.

Noting shifting fashion trends, Woodworth said when the board last updated the dress code, its biggest worry was male students flashing their boxers because their pants hung to their knees.

The board won’t promise students will get what they want with an updated dress code but the board welcomes student feedback, said Woodworth.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #259 (Wednesday, June 18, 2014). This story appeared on page A1.

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