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Woodstock’s Girls-Only Dress Code Assembly Prompts Backlash

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/3/2016 11:56:48 PM
Modified: 5/3/2016 11:57:28 PM

Woodstock — A girls-only assembly to talk about inappropriate clothing at the Woodstock Union Middle School has led to accusations of sexism and a move by administrators to rethink the school’s dress code.

“What they’re doing is sexist. It’s discriminatory, and it’s so damaging to our students,” said Alison Taylor, a parent of a current eighth-grade boy. Her sixth-grade daughter is about to enter the middle school, which serves grades seven and eight.

Taylor said she was horrified by student reports of the middle school’s dress code and how it’s enforced.

Education officials agreed there is a problem with the policy.

“We need to take some ownership of this,” said Alice Thomason Worth, superintendent of the Windsor Central Supervisory Union, which includes the Woodstock Union Middle School and High School.

Dissatisfaction with the school’s dress code boiled over following an April 22 general assembly, during which eight female middle school teachers addressed the seventh- and eighth-grade girls to talk about dress code violations.

The dress code prohibits unsafe or distracting clothing, as well as specific clothing features such as tight-fitting jeans and spaghetti straps that many say are fashionable.

 

According to Taylor, a teacher “explained to the school’s girls that when they don’t comply with the school’s dress code, they are distracting the boys from being able to learn. She said that when they wear short skirts, the boys hide under the stairs to look up them.”

That’s a damaging message, Taylor said, because it blames girls for wearing outfits that distract their male peers, rather than holding boys accountable for their behavior.

Worth said the meeting was initiated by female staff at the school in response to some dress code violations they felt were important to address.

She said the idea to make it a girls-only discussion was “because they thought it would be more respectful to do it without the boys.”

Principal Dana Peterson was supportive of the meeting, Worth said, but he was not present when it took place.

Worth said it’s difficult to know exactly what was said during the meeting, but that many students left with a negative interpretation.

She said she didn’t believe any official staff reprimands were in order.

“At this point in time, it looks like a lapse of judgment,” Worth said. “We will work our way through this and we will be as transparent and open as we can. I know in my heart there was no malicious intent on the part of any employee.”

Worth said she personally is addressing the entire student body about the issue today, and that she will be present at an open forum for parents scheduled for 5:30 p.m. on May 11 at the middle school.

Parents said they are concerned, both about the message and the way in which it was delivered.

Kathleen Dolan, who has a daughter in the middle school, said that making girls feel responsible for boys’ actions can have a serious impact later in life.

“It contributes to a rape culture,” she said.

Chris Powers, whose son is in the middle school, said he was bothered by the decision to call the assembly without parental input.

“I almost think a conversation with the town should have happened prior to all the girls being called in a separate assembly,” Powers said.

Taylor said her issues with the school’s dress code run much deeper than the assembly. She said the dress code itself unfairly targets girls, which results in humiliating gender-biased enforcement actions.

“There’s a very uneven application. Girls who are more physically developed are getting called out in class in front of all the other students,” she said.

Some of the four-paragraph dress code section of the student handbook is worded broadly, such as when it asks students to dress in attire that is “safe, does not cause undue attention ..., does not cause a disturbance ..., does not promote ... alcohol, tobacco or illegal substances, and ... is not vulgar or profane.”

Dress code critics are focused on a much more specific section requiring that sleeveless garments have straps at least 3 inches wide, that tops overlap with bottoms at the waist, that skirts cover most of the thigh, that underwear remain unseen, and that shorts have inseams of at least 7 inches in length, among other things.

While the dress code applies to both boys and girls, Taylor said the vast majority of enforcement actions are taken against girls.

According to Taylor, the inseam requirement has led to students having their inseams measured by school staff.

 

Worth agreed there were problems with the dress code, which she said is “open to subjectivity.” She said it should be revised and also expanded to apply to high school students, who currently are under no dress code even though they share the same campus and mingle freely with the younger students.

Worth said she would like to engage students in a rewriting of the policy in a way that preserves the dignity of the student without leaving room for subjective interpretation and enforcement.

Bringing students into the discussion, she said, would help everyone to learn.

“It’s an opportunity to educate a lot of people,” she said, “including myself.”

Taylor welcomed that idea, but stressed that reform would need to extend to the manner in which the policy is enforced.

Taylor has been a driving force behind bringing attention to the issue, writing letters to school officials and media outlets and posting on social media, where one post drew comments from 100 people, many of whom are not from the area.

Parents like Dolan and Powers also were supportive of moving forward.

“I don’t believe there’s been a lot of damage done,” Dolan said. “The whole dress code is evolving. It should be restructured.”

Dolan said her daughter was concerned with the ferocity of the community response.

“She’s worried that it’s getting a little overzealous and some of these teachers are being unfairly talked about,” Dolan said. “She’s worried it’s getting a little bit out of hand.”

Powers said he felt like Peterson has provided good overall leadership at the middle school, where, he said, “there’s a lot of good things happening ... . I think part of that comes from the top down.”

Those who embark on the process of drafting a fair dress code might find it a difficult task.

Taylor, a private education consultant who works with families who have children on the autism spectrum, said she accepted the basic principle that students shouldn’t be dressed too provocatively, but noted the ideal can be abused in a way that ostracizes girls of certain body types.

“There’s an accepted way of thinking about public decency,” she said. “It comes and goes, dictated on prevailing fashions.”

“I think a good dress code has both genders very involved in having to be regulated by it, not just the girls,” Dolan said. “There needs to be a feeling that female bodies are OK.”

While the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to hear a case involving a challenge to a public school dress code, state courts that have taken up the issue generally consider “whether something is disrupting activities in school to the point that other students are being denied their opportunities to learn, to not be distracted in class,” said Allen Gilbert, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont.

When the clothing in question is characterized by an overt symbol — like a beer advertisement — it’s relatively easy to interpret, he said. Issues of taste and style, like the width of a shirt strap, are far more difficult to judge, particularly if the standard is whether it’s distracting to peers.

“The person who becomes the arbiter of the situation is the male student, who reports how he feels about something and how he’s affected,” Gilbert said. “That leads into a very subjective area that’s difficult to judge.”

For this reason, Gilbert said, courts traditionally have tread lightly when it comes to dress codes.

“Generally, courts don’t want to get into saying how short a woman’s skirt can be, or how tight a boy’s jeans can be,” he said. “That is getting into an area that’s really difficult to measure in set standards.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.




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