School dress codes: Coming up short on situational awareness

Violet Burkhart's school sent the girl home on the last day of school for a dress that was too short. Her mom then wore the dress to her graduation. Could the parent, and the school, have benefitted from a little perspective before jumping to blame?

When a North Carolina mom feels she need to wear her daughter’s dress to the girl’s graduation to make a point, it might be time to readjust the parenting goggles of educators. Is it time to remind those we trust with our kids that along with the caretaker role comes the need to adapt to the moment and be reasonable, based on the situation?

Amy Redwine, mom of graduating senior Violet Burkhart, thumbed her nose at a dress code rule on hem lengths that had gotten her daughter removed from school on her last day of senior year by proudly wearing the dress in questions to her daughter graduation ceremony at Central Davidson High School in Lexington, N.C.

There have been quite a few dustups this past school year over dress codes; While one school banned yoga pants from being worn by girls, another adjusted yearbook photos using Photoshop to cover shoulders and added wardrobe to images without the permission of parents.

For me, mom of four boys, upholding a school dress code has never been an issue, because it would appear that girls are the preferred target of the minutia-seeking missiles some educators can become when the role of enforcement – and a ruler – are in their hands.

However, that has not shielded me or my boys from other misguided attempts by people in charge (teachers, administrators) to enforce rules to the letter, while missing the spirit of those rules.

My husband calls these moments ones that call for “situational awareness.”

It’s like our code for stopping in mid-reprimand to see if one of us is missing the point of an act or moment.

For example, if we are on having an ice cream party to celebrate an achievement of one of the kids, and my husband becomes the neat police, slurping all the fun from the moment, I will give him the elbow poke and say, “Situational awareness.”

Also, I know that if one of the boys is carrying a power tool and wearing goggles, my husband may call out from some unseen location, “Situational awareness!”

I think in the case  of Violet Burkhart, the educator who tossed her out of school on her last day of senior year for a hemline that was half an inch too short, was not being “situationally aware” of the irrelevance of that rule at that moment in the girl’s life.

Violet’s school was just one of many that made the news after going to great and in some cases unusual lengths to enforce a dress code.

Her dress, according to reports, is one the girl had worn to school on multiple occasions, but apparently an educator whose best use of a ruler was measuring hemlines that day sent her home to change.

This is where those home economics classes could have saved the day, along with a form of “situational awareness” rather than leaping right to blame and shame - in the case of the school and the parent.

In addition to “Family Life” classes at school, I learned about hinky hems from my mom, a fashion designer, who drummed her own dress code and the rules of hemlines into me from an early age.

That’s why I know a hemline can measure differently depending on the point along that line it is measured, if the material shrinks up after washing like cotton does and if a person has filled-out and the hem was not adjusted.

“Filled-out” can mean anything from a girl developing a bigger bustline or gaining weight, which in either case can raise the the hem through fabric attrition.

I suddenly feel like the character Elle Woods giving a court statement about the rules for care of freshly permed hair during a courtroom scene from the movie “Legally Blond.”

Perhaps the mom may have lacked the situational awareness that the dress was shorter than the last time she saw it on her daughter, or maybe she just presumed the school would think, as many parents might, that the dress code would be a non-issue in the larger scheme of things on the last day of school for a senior class member.

As parents, we ask a lot of educators who are trying to act “in loco parentis” which is Latin for “in place of a parent” for eight hours a day to hundreds of kids.

Perhaps, we need to adjust the height of the line we expect them to measure up to by realizing that that there is another kind of “loco” (as in “crazy” in Spanish) that can take hold of those “in loco parentis”

Parents have all been a little loco from time to time, and perhaps we need to help educators know that while we can relate to having those crazy moments we all need to get better at recognizing them for the sake of the kids.

The seemingly irrational behavior of the school was reflected in the image of the mom at that graduation ceremony. There are many rules in school and at home. The challenge parents and educators face together is remembering to be present in the moment as more than just disciplinarians, but also as parents and leave the “loco” out whenever possible. 

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