Dress-code flap: Does embarrassing students with 'shame suit' violate their rights?

It’s common for schools to set dress-code policies. But how to enforce those policies – and whether embarrassing students is an appropriate option – is a matter wide open for debate.

A mother says her daughter was forced to wear a “shame suit” for violating the dress code at her Florida high school, and she’s thinking about filing a formal complaint with federal education officials.

Miranda Larkin was new to the area and just a few days into the semester at Oakleaf High School in Clay County, Fla., when she wore a skirt that the school nurse said was a violation because it rose more than three inches above her knee, Miranda told USA Today. She says she was told to wear a bright yellow T-shirt and bright red sweatpants with the words “Dress Code Violation” on them.

A school district representative told USA Today that students who violate the dress code have a choice of wearing the outfit, having someone bring them a suitable outfit, or going to in-school suspension. Dianna Larkin, Miranda’s mother, told the paper that no other options were offered and that her daughter was so humiliated she “started sobbing and broke out in hives.”

It’s common for schools to set dress-code policies, with courts only stepping in to ensure that students’ right to free speech aren’t violated. But how to enforce those policies – and whether embarrassing students is an appropriate option – is a matter wide open for debate.

Positive forms of discipline, rather than shaming, is generally supported by child-development experts.

The school’s goal was likely “to make something so embarrassing that the student, and other students, won’t violate the rule in the future,” but how that will impact students should be taken into account, says Jennifer Lansford, a research professor at Duke University's Center for Child and Family Policy in North Carolina.

Because Miranda is new to the school, “she’s probably trying to make friends and fit in, and she’s probably especially vulnerable” to feeling shamed, Professor Lansford says. “Some kids are more able to brush things off.”  

But individually tailoring a punishment to a particular child would be difficult for school districts, which strive to enforce discipline impartially. A Clay County district attorney told USA Today that the school board had consulted with other districts and deemed the practice acceptable.

Ms. Larkin disagrees, telling the newspaper that she may file a complaint alleging that the school violated the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act for making her daughter’s dress-code violation public.

Generally that law applies to privacy for student records, and it’s not clear whether any such challenge has been brought before. Contacted by the Monitor, the US Department of Education, which oversees FERPA enforcement, declined to comment.

Controversy over embarrassing forms of discipline in schools has come up before. A teacher in the Pasco County, Fla., school district was reprimanded in 2012 and transferred to a different school for having students wear a veterinary cone-shaped dog collar when they were late to class, the Tampa Bay Tribune reported.

The science teacher said students were curious about such collars after seeing one used as a “cone of shame” on a dog character in the animated film “Up.” She said that after the film, she brought one in, and gave students a choice of sitting at a tardy table or wearing the cone if they were late, the Tribune reported.  A parent’s complaint led to an investigation.

While some parents are angered by schools’ attempt to use embarrassment to change behavior, others use that tactic themselves. Parents have made their kids stand outside holding signs confessing to their misbehavior, for instance, or posted pictures of their child's infractions on Facebook.

But when they take it to the extreme, they can face charges of abuse. A woman and her boyfriend were arrested in Fridley, Minn., in 2012 for allegedly shaving the head of the woman’s 12-year-old daughter and forcing her to run around outside wearing a diaper and tank top, as punishment for low grades, the Associated Press reported. The mother was convicted of the crime of malicious punishment.

“The research is pretty clear that it’s never appropriate to shame a child, or to make a child feel degraded or diminished,” Andrew Grogan-Kaylor, a social work professor at the University of Michigan, told the online MyHealthNewsDaily. Such punishments can lead to “problems … including increased anxiety, depression, and aggression.”

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