The South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education will vote on whether to revise the district’s dress and grooming policy, after a controversy last spring triggered a debate on whether school dress codes were inconsistently enforced and unfairly singled out female students.
“There was a lot of concern about how the dress code was being implemented at different schools,” said President Beth Daugherty at the BOE’s September meeting.
Student representative Maggie Kritzberg, who drafted the proposed revisions to Policy 5511: Dress and Grooming with input from the board’s Policy and Monitoring Committee, explained that the changes would address concerns from parents and students that the code was being unfairly and arbitrarily enforced across the district.
“Students are excited by the proposed changes,” Kritzberg said.
Part of the proposed new policy language reads:
“Enforcement…will be done without regard to race, color, religion, ancestry, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, physical characteristics or disability.
Interpretation and expansion of the dress code at the school level shall be overseen by the Superintendent consistent with all relevant Board Policies, and will be done in collaboration and communication between staff members, students, and parents or legal guardians. Interpretation and expansion shall be consistent across schools serving the same grade levels.”
The entire code can be found here.
Kritzberg said the new language was included to “create an awareness…[so] that when we enforce [the dress code] it is respectful of students’ rights” and does not make individual students uncomfortable.
In addition, the proposed revisions seek to address confusion among students and parents about how the dress code differs at the elementary, middle and high schools.
Daugherty mentioned the now-infamous “fingertip rule,” which states that shorts or skirts should not be shorter than the fingertip of a student’s extended arm, which some parents said unfairly targeted female students. South Orange Middle School (SOMS) Principal Joseph Uglialoro came under fire last spring for emails singling out “female students” in regard to “dress code issues.”
The ensuing controversy motivated a group of girls to launch #IAmMoreThanaDistraction, a social media campaign on twitter and Facebook.
Meanwhile, the dress code controversy shows no signs of abating, both locally and nationally. An essay by SOMS parent Jennifer Weiss-Wolf was recently published describing how a coalition of parents has been working with the district to help revise and standardize the policy.
The district dress and grooming policy is very broad, said Daugherty, and does not contain specific language regarding fingertip rules or minimum strap widths on tank tops. In revising the policy language, the board’s goal is to align the dress code with the district’s code of conduct.
The superintendent is responsible for updating and enforcing the codes at the school level, and the board does not approve the detailed regulations at individual schools or school levels.
“The policy language is very high level, both in 5511…and 5600 Code of Conduct,” Daugherty said in an email to The Village Green. “The proposed…changes are meant to ensure that as the dress code is expanded in more detail at [each] school level, it is done with stakeholder input, is consistent with applicable laws and enforced in a consistent manner.”
Daugherty, along with board members Andrea Wren-Hardin and Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad urged Acting Superintendent Jim Memoli to finalize any changes before spring, when the dress code issue will heat up again.
Daugherty wanted to make sure there was enough time to solicit input from the community. “There might be some people who say it’s ridiculous but others believe, ‘No way — those shorts are way too short,'” she said.
Lawson-Muhammad said she hoped the guidelines would be revised by April. “This wasn’t just an issue here,” said Lawson-Muhammad. “There was a national outcry.”
Board member Johanna Wright, who was a teacher in the district for many years, said there should be awareness of different body types. For instance, she said, one student might have “a little extra junk in the trunk.”
Kritzberg agreed, and said the proposed changes to the policy specify that the code should not be enforced based on physical characteristics.
The board will hold the second reading and vote on October 20 at its regular meeting, when it will recommend the changes be implemented and the district handbook revised by April 1.