Parents, Students Speak Out on Woodstock School Dress Code

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/12/2016 12:07:12 AM
Modified: 5/12/2016 9:57:03 AM

Woodstock — During an emotional public forum on Wednesday night about the middle school dress code, administrators apologized for holding a girls-only assembly that some say helped to codify sexism against seventh- and eighth-grade girls.

Woodstock Union Middle School Principal Dana Peterson spoke into a microphone while facing a crowd of more than 100 people, including about 20 middle school girls.

“I don’t offer an apology to make appeasements,” he said. “I offer an apology because I know that I misstepped. ... Separating out the female population was a huge mistake. That was mine, and mine alone.”

Peterson was referring to his authorization of the April 22 assembly, during which some attending girls reported that administrator Peg DiBella said girls should cover up so as not to distract boys, a message that some parents likened to victim-blaming in sexual assault cases.

The outcry led to a much broader indictment of the middle school’s dress code and the way in which it is enforced. Many objected to specific requirements barring students from wearing shorts with an inseam of less than 7 inches in length, and sleeveless shirts with straps less than 3 inches wide — measures the school’s athletic uniforms flunk. Others complained that the methods of enforcement — which include visual inspections of girls, halting class to “call” a girl to the office, and in some cases measuring their inseams — constitute a humiliating environment.

As forum attendees shared perspectives about what teen girls should be allowed to wear to school, the vast difference between those perspectives began to emerge.

Woodstock Central Supervisory Union Superintendent Alice Worth stuck tenaciously to upbeat language throughout the sometimes-contentious meeting, striving to keep the conversation focused on the future.

“We are absolutely looking forward to moving forward in a proactive and constructive way to make the necessary changes,” she said at the beginning of the meeting.

But Violetta Alexander, like many upset parents, said she also wants answers and accountability about the past.

“There have been some other things that have been happening,” Alexander said. “They’ve been going into their homeroom classes and asking the girls to stand up. The girls were told that there would be daily dress code checks. This was after the (April 22) meeting. ... They just continued to discriminate, harass and embarrass the girls.”

Nearly everyone agreed it was a bad idea to give the girls a lecture on the dress code while their male counterparts enjoyed a free period.

But while many parents expressed a desire for accountability and answers, many girls seemed to be focused on the particulars of a dress code they say puts them at odds with practical clothing in a modern world.

One student, Maggie Parker, said she had been called for wearing jeans with holes ripped in the thigh. Two girls were wearing shorts that ended near the top of their thighs — outfits they said they had been called out for wearing, and that measurements had shown to be 2 inches too short.

Most seemed to want a dress code that was clear, only slightly less restrictive and enforced in a less embarrassing way.

“The times they are a-changing,” said Maggie Rice, an eighth-grader. “I don’t believe that the dress code should be 7-inch shorts, and should be 3-inch (in)seams. That doesn’t really go with fashion. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have a dress code.”

Because different girls left the April 22 assembly with different impressions, questions remained about what exactly was said.

A group of six middle school girls — Chloe McKaig, Abby Mersel, Kelly Gebheart, Anda Brown, Erica Kurash and Parker — jointly read a prepared statement in which they said the content of the meeting was being widely misconstrued.

“There has been a mix-up because of the anger in the community and the media’s interference,” they said. “Some of the posted news articles were quoted from adults, who were not at the meeting, and frustrated students who might not have understood the original intent of the meeting. The original intent was not to tell females that our bodies are distracting or that we need to cover ourselves, but to simply remind us that warmer weather is coming and that the dress code still applies during the last few weeks of school.”

But that’s not how other students, like Kaylee Longley and Alexander’s daughter, Anastasia “Bitty” Alexander, saw it.

“Honestly, I think it was way out of hand and the message that came across was not positive. The way Ms. DiBella put it out there was not okay,” Longley said.

At one point, DiBella addressed the crowd, and while she didn’t get into the specifics of what was said at the assembly, she said the purpose was to reduce confusion about the code. 

“It was a way to talk to girls privately in a way that would not embarrass them in front of the boys. … There has been, with warmer weather, shorter skirts,” she said. “I have witnessed young ladies walking down the hallway with backpacks on pulling up the back of their dresses. ... It was a way of talking to them simply to inform them of things that they might need to be careful with. ... I’m sorry for any harm I may have unintentionally caused.”

Worth said middle school administrators will review the comments of the night, collect more information from students, and use that information to draft a new dress code, under her guidance.

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