The beginning of every school year brings what we like to call “dress code season” with it. It’s an entire month or more of viral tales and “wow, seriously?” moments involving everything from the cops being called on a young man’s pants to an entire spectrum of leggings-related consequences. With the summer being a dismal clusterfuck of human rights violations topped off with a horrifying mass shooting perpetrated against police, we probably should have seen this coming: a ban on politically flavored shirts and the predictable outcry as a result.
Take Arizona high school student Mariah Harvard, for example. She wore a T-shirt with three simple words on it, and those words were considered offensive enough to require that she change before taking her school picture: Black Lives Matter.
Upon reading that, you’re likely to have one of two reactions, and both of them will likely be seated in anger. It’s a touchy subject, whether it ought to be or not (there’s nothing factually incorrect about the statement above) because of all the voices that weigh in on what it means.
What’s important to this particular situation is that Mariah Harvard was given the reason most all kids are given for changing out of a shirt or item of clothing, whether it’s one that proudly proclaims their virginity or a casualty in the ongoing debate over what constitutes pants: the article of clothing is “disruptive.”
And yes, ever since the administration in her school brought attention to it by having her remove it, it definitely has been. A friend of Harvard’s who wore the same shirt as a show of support ended up withdrawing from school. It’s prompted Harvard to publicly point out the hypocrisy of the school not having other students remove Confederate flag shirts — another instance of iconography that stokes racial tension.
There’s talk of a racial divide that might cause things to get “heated” today at Buckeye High School.
And absolutely none of this had to happen.
We are asking schools to take on a Sisyphean task when we ask them to monitor and adjudicate what and what doesn’t meet the level of “disruptive” leisure wear. We are asking individuals to speak on behalf of entities by trying to make objective decisions that are inherently subjective.
One teacher might see Harvard’s T-shirt and see a young girl who is impassioned by a very real issue. Another teacher altogether might become offended. Or they may fear that others will become offended, which is the consistent flaw when it comes to dress code season. It results in consequences that forego conflicts and punish students for potential mishaps, not actual ones.
It isn’t that scores of boys are failing algebra because a girl wore a tank top once. It isn’t that anyone who isn’t Christian can’t focus in Spanish class because their peer is wearing a hoodie with a Bible verse on it. It isn’t that all of the white kids at Buckeye High School were deeply disturbed to the point of not being able to function when Harvard walked in with a shirt that proclaims the worth of black lives.
It’s that they might have been.
Dress codes attempt to be ironclad. They try to clearly outline what is and isn’t appropriate attire. We know deeply disturbing and disruptive things when we see them. They’re easy to ban: a shirt with a racial slur splashed across it; explicit references to weapons and clothing that belong in Frederick’s or Tallywackers. But there’s no room for nuance. It invites a lot of “what ifs” and suddenly the action that a teacher takes to avoid disruption ignites it.
If we want schools to be places to learn, and if we want to allow schools to make the argument that what kids wear affects that environment, then we have to permit schools to actually implement a dress code that can be easily followed with no room for error.
You can’t get offended by khakis and cheap navy chinos. No one ever clutched their pearls at a pair of clunky loafers. There’s not a whole lot of disruption caused by standard-issue tennis shoes. Swooning never happens within the vicinity of beige polos. And kids, in all of their rebellious, boundary-pushing, persona-seeking glory have a tough time making a poly-blend pullover look subversive.
Is it boring? Sure. Is it going to make that unit on freedom of expression a real toughie to teach? You bet. But if schools want to manage kerfuffles by policing what kids wear to school, and parents want to continue to ask them to do that, you have to nix the nuance. There won’t be a need to demystify arbitrary dress code rules if you tell students what they have to wear, and not what they maybe probably shouldn’t.
Before you go, check out our slideshow below.