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How to Enforce the Student Dress Code in a Fair Way

Illustration: diverse students in multi-dress

Help even your most fashion-forward students keep their clothing choices within the school's dress code.

As a classroom teacher, enforcing your school's student dress code probably isn't at the top of your list. But supporting school rules is part of your overall responsibilities. So how can you determine which student dress code issues require attention, and how can you deal with them without disrupting class or diminishing your rapport with students?

Further Reading: How to Build Trust with Students

Make Sure Kids Know What's Expected

Every middle and high school I've worked at had a dress code. Schools typically ban T-shirts that display racist, sexist, obscene, or gang-related messages. Generally, clothing shouldn't be overly revealing, hats can't be worn in the classroom, and jewelry shouldn't be able to double as a weapon (heavy chains, for example).

Depending on the school, an administrator or class advisor will gather the students at the beginning of the year to go over the rules and expectations. This general review of the student dress code is helpful because kids can see it applies to everyone and that they aren't being singled out. If no general meeting occurs to review the dress code, it's a good idea for you to review it with your students on the first day of class so they're aware of the rules.

Avoid Embarrassing Dress Code Violators

When you do see a dress code violation that can't be ignored, speak to the student privately. I always preferred to talk to the student at the end of class to avoid disrupting class time or drawing unnecessary attention to the student. I admit that sometimes I just gave a student a warning if it was a minor issue. Other times, I'd say something like, "I think that top is out of dress code. I'm going to give you a pass to the dean to see what she thinks." It's important to be respectful to kids and not make it a bigger issue than it needs to be.

My high school had an administrator who made the final decision and called parents if necessary. This arrangement not only took the teacher off the hook but also kept kids from being subjected to multiple teachers' ideas of what qualified as appropriate dress. If your school doesn't have this setup, teachers may be more inclined to confront only those issues that can't be ignored. Few of us have the time or inclination to call parents about what their child wore to school that day. We end up reserving those calls home for bigger issues but still work quietly and respectfully with kids to change behaviors.

Understand Your Students' Concerns

Studies regarding the effectiveness of dress codes are inconclusive. And a growing concern with student dress codes is that they're not always applied equally to boys and girls, with dress codes often being stricter for girls on the basis that what they wear can be "distracting" to boys. In addition, some people have raised issues of free speech and religious freedom in terms of what T-shirt messages students have a right to wear. So the issue of enforcing a dress code is not that simple.

One of the biggest objections kids have to the dress code is that it's applied unfairly. Unless it's a flagrant violation—a totally offensive T-shirt message that can't be missed, for example—minor violations often slip through the day undetected. Teachers are focused on instruction, after all, so small violations aren't always noticed every time. This leads to students being quick to point out when other kids have worn the very thing they're getting reprimanded for and not gotten in trouble. Consequently, if you're teaching the last period of the day, it won't improve your relationship with students to call out a dress code violation that's gone unnoticed for seven periods!

Further Reading: Stop Bullying by Creating a Strong Classroom Community

It's important to use good judgment, restraint, and respect when dealing with dress code issues. If you ignore obvious violations, you'll look like you don't care about the code, and it is your responsibility as a member of the faculty to support school rules. But you don't have to look for problems either. So start your class with a quick scan of your students, make a mental note if you need to speak to anyone after class, and move on to focus on teaching and learning.