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Do school dress codes perpetuate sexism, culture of rape?

A growing movement argues that in attempting to create a conducive learning environment, dress codes value certain groups of people over others.

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    Boston Latin School is the oldest public school in the United States, established in 1635.
    Josh Kenworthy/The Christian Science Monitor
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Students at Boston Latin School, the oldest public school in the United States, have petitioned to have the dress code changed, claiming that it shamed girls’ bodies and perpetuated rape culture.

As it stands, the school's dress code bans see-through garments, spaghetti straps, hats, and gang-related colors. Leggings were recently removed from that list after a student-initiated Change.org petition put pressure on the school administration to work with the students to adjust a dress code they deemed was sexist and discriminated against minorities.

“The message I hope to send while we’re in here is that the business of education can coexist with a woman choosing what she wants to wear,” student Liliana Severin, who organized the Change.org petition, told CBS.

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After negotiating with students, Boston Latin School’s interim headmaster Michael Contompasis has agreed to allow students to wear leggings and revisit some of the other complaints at a later date.

“We are very sensitive to the fact that we have kids here who are struggling with their own identity. We don’t want to create an environment where they feel uncomfortable,” Mr. Contompasis told the Boston Herald. “No one condones things that might be of serious consequence. We’re not picking on young women any more than we’re picking on young men.”

In addition to protesting the school’s support of a ”patriarchal society where men can decide whether a female’s clothing is appropriate or inappropriate,” according to the petition, students are also worried that the vague phrasing of “gang related clothing” will disproportionately target the school’s minority community.

While school dress codes are nothing new, they got a boost in the past few decades as fear of gun violence in schools grew following the Columbine High School massacre in 1999.

“Public schools have the responsibility to have safe and orderly schools that maintain an environment conducive to learning,” dress code proponent Dr. Larry Wilder wrote in a 2007 post, citing “benefits, such as decreasing violence and theft, preventing students from wearing gang-related colors to school, instilling student discipline, helping to resist peer pressure, helping students concentrate on academics, and aiding in recognition of intruders.”

But recently, a growing movement has argued that in attempting to create a conducive learning environment, dress codes value certain groups of people over others.

“It's not really the formal dress code by itself that is so discriminatory, it’s the message behind the dress code,” Maggie Sunseri, who produced "Shame: A Documentary on School Dress Code," told The Atlantic. “My principal constantly says that the main reason for [it] is to create a ‘distraction-free learning zone’ for our male counterparts.”

Dress code advocates note that boys wearing baggy pants, showing their underwear, can be a distraction in a classroom, too.

Many girls say that the implication of these dress codes is that schools are more concerned with the boys' learning environment than the girls'. A dress code protest in New Jersey spawned the hashtag #ImMoreThanADistraction, which went viral and created a platform for girls to air their grievances with being pulled out of class to change clothes so as not to distract the boys. 

Dress codes are typically divided along a gender binary, making it difficult for trans and gender non-conforming students. Additionally, hats and other head wear are often restricted by dress codes without taking into account religious minorities. Activists have complained that even when schools are working with cultural minorities and gender non-conforming students, the schools are making an exception rather than making acceptance the rule.

The Boston Latin School Change.org petition, and many similar campaigns at other schools, have also criticized the school dress codes for making girls responsible for preventing harassment from boys – logic that, they argue, contributes to rape culture where victims are blamed for dressing provocatively.

“Often they report hearing phrases like, ‘boys will be boys,’ from teachers,” Laura Bates, a co-founder of The Everyday Sexism Project, told The Atlantic. “There’s a real culture being built up through some of these dress codes where girls are receiving very clear messages that male behavior, male entitlement to your body in public space is socially acceptable, but you will be punished.”

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