Dress Coded: Black girls, bodies, and bias in D.C. schools

Dress Coded Cover Page By The National Women's Law Center
April 1, 2018 7:20 pm

Black girls in District of Columbia schools, like girls across the country, miss out on crucial class time simply because of the clothes they wear or the style of their hair or makeup. Again and again, they are suspended for tight pants, sent to the office for shoes that aren’t quite the right color, and told they must “cover up” before they can learn. Strict dress, uniform, and grooming codes do nothing to protect girls or their classmates’ learning. Rather, these codes needlessly interrupt their educations.

While all students disciplined for dress code violations face these interruptions, Black girls face unique dress and hair code burdens. For example, some schools ban styles associated with Black girls and women, like hair wraps. Black girls also face adults’ stereotyped perceptions that they are more sexually provocative because of their race, and thus more deserving of punishment for a low-cut shirt or short skirt. Girls who are more physically developed or curvier than their peers also may be viewed as more promiscuous by adults, which can lead to them being punished more often for tight or revealing clothing.

Dress codes also communicate to students that girls are to be blamed for “distracting” boys, instead of teaching boys to respect girls, correct their behavior and be more responsible. This dangerous message promotes sexual harassment in schools.

The costs of dress codes are known all too well by students, but are rarely considered a matter of important education policy. In order to demonstrate the impact of dress codes, the National Women’s Law Center undertook a city-wide exploration into young people’s
real experiences alongside 21 Black girls who attend or recently attended schools in D.C. These girls represent 12 different public schools, including charter schools and traditional public schools
(known as “District of Columbia Public Schools,” or DCPS).

Our findings are cause for grave concern. Plain and simple, D.C. dress codes promote race and sex discrimination and pull students out of the classroom for no good reason—often through illegal suspensions. As a result, Black girls fall behind in school, which threatens their long-term earning potential while also exacerbating longstanding and widespread racial and gender inequalities.

In this report, we present some common problems with D.C. schools’ dress codes, how these rules affect Black girls, and ideas for how schools and lawmakers can do better by all girls—but especially the Black girls who make up the majority of female students in D.C. schools. We hope that our findings will serve as a call to action for D.C. educators and policymakers to support Black girls in school.

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