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Dress code controversy: Is it about safety or identity?

A California school district finds itself in the middle of a dress code controversy.

Over time, concerns surrounding school dress codes have graduated from concerns over revealing wardrobe items or gang colors to understanding the needs students who don't conform to traditional gender identities.

Those who support the dress codes feel that they are an important part of the educational curriculum meant to promote a more conducive learning environment that is safer and free from distraction. Opponents say we need to consider the emotional and cultural damage done by forcing modern LGBT students to conform to gender identities they do not identify with.

As these worlds struggle to find parity, California's Clovis Unified School District finds itself emerging as a battleground. On Tuesday, boys came to school in dresses and girls in men’s collared shirts and ties to protest the rejection of a gender-neutral dress code by the school board.

The proposed dress code would have "allowed boys to wear long hair and earrings and removed language that says dresses and skirts are for girls," Education Week reported.

Students and their supporters took their campaign to a new battleground on social media.

The reasoning behind many of today’s school dress codes harkens back to dress code proponent Dr.Larry Wilder, who championed dress codes as a safety practice, frequently citing the Columbine High School massacre in 1999.

At the time, Mr. Wilder directed the administrative services program at the Fresno Pacific University School of Education. His speeches and writings were widely quoted in the education community by those in favor of dress codes.

“Public schools have the responsibility to have safe and orderly schools that maintain an environment conducive to learning,” Wilder wrote in November of 2007. He cites “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.”

Kelly Avants, chief communications officer for the Clovis School District, agrees, telling The Christian Science Monitor, “We have a dress code largely for the safety of the students because there is a large gang population in this area and having a dress code helps us identify who doesn’t belong at the school.”

Ms. Avants adds that those protesting are not representative of the student body as a whole. “We have 42,000 students in the district and this protest only represents a handful,” she says.

But advocates for changing the dress code say that current rules fail to account for students with non-traditional gender identities.

“I think the term gender-neutral is more of a term for restroom options whereas I prefer to frame this issue more around how someone is expressing their gender identity in Clovis and other places,” says Susan Thronson, board member of advocacy group PFLAG National, in an interview. “You have identity issues and expression issues. This is an expression issue.”

However, Avants says, “We have a very positive relationship with the dozen or so students in our district who identify as other genders. We work with them to give them an exemption. Like the Sikh students who wear their head pieces, which is against the dress code but we work with them to allow them to wear their religious or cultural garb. We work with people with medical exemptions.”

LGBT supporters say exemptions are not the way to go, but rather a complete cultural makeover is in order from fashion acceptance to language.

“We applaud those students who called attention to outdated dress code policies in their school system,” Sylvain Bruni, the president of Boston Pride, writes in an email response to questions on the topic. “By wearing clothes typically associated with genders other than their own self-identified gender, these students demonstrated, with great pride, their solidarity with their peers.”  

Ms. Thronson adds, “As a fifty-something-ish person, I grew up in a binary world and what my journey over the past several years has taught me is that people in our country and around the world do not express or see themselves in the binary – male or female.”

“That doesn’t mean there is a third landing point. That means there are countless points along that continuum at which an individual can see their identity,” she explains. “And that is a really hard thing for those of us who have lived in this binary culture to get our heads around.”

“The thing to understand is that every misidentification is a stab wound, particularly for youth,” Thronson says. “Some wounds are shallow, others are deeper, but we feel them all. Every time someone stops a person from entering a bathroom or calls someone ‘him, her, Miss or Mister’ and gets it wrong it’s a wound that can lead to some lasting negative effects.”

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