During the first week of the academic year, a student at Virgil I. Grissom High School in Huntsville, Alabama, named Josephina Thompson says she was pulled out of class and sent to an in-school suspension room. According to Thompson, she had been wearing leggings and a baggy sweatshirt, violating the Huntsville City Schools dress code, which states that students cannot wear leggings to school.
In a public Facebook post about the incident, she wrote: “I’ve always been pretty chill with the way women are looked at because I’ve never really thought much about it until now, but I am so sick and tired of being ridiculed and singled out just because I have a damn vagina. I have body parts men don’t, and if my clothing accentuates those body parts mildly, I shouldn’t be punished for it.”
But punished she was—she missed a full class, and if one of her parents hadn’t been able to bring her a different outfit, she says, she would have missed an entire day of school. She continued, “This isn’t JUST about dress code anymore, this is about my rights as a female,” including her Title IX rights to an equal education.
Thompson’s story is far from unique: Female students around the country have been sent home or removed from class for wearing leggings, clavicle-exposing tank tops, or other forms of clothing deemed distracting or violations of codes. Recently, students have protested, many pointing out that they feel girl students are being asked to take preemptive responsibility for others’ feelings, to the detriment of their own education. At Woodford High School in Kentucky, for instance, students made a video in May entitled “Shame: A Documentary” about how they feel their dress code enforces negative body images for girls and dangerous, predatory behavior patterns for boys. In Huntsville, too, students and their families have begun to push back, including a direct action in response to Thompson’s post, in which dozens of students protested.
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Thompson’s mother, Deanna Wolf, commented in a public Facebook post the day Thompson was sent home:
Why single a student out, put her in a locked room and inhibit her learning because of one faculty member’s INTERPRETATION of her clothing? It boils down to the claim that girls’ “revealing” clothing is a distraction to male students. That the mere idea of a girl even HAVING a derriere (or, heaven forbid, shoulders) is so scandalous that we must stop everything and hide her away.
I am sick to death of the public shaming of the female form. You are telling girls that their bodies are to be hidden, and that boys cannot control their minds if they see the basic female figure. It’s disgusting and it belittles both sexes. Not to mention that this whole situation clearly states that a girl’s education has less importance than a boy’s education, and that her right to said education is secondary to providing a distraction free learning environment for the opposite sex.
According to the Huntsville City Schools’ “Code of Student Conduct,” students who wear leggings or yoga pants must cover them with “shorts, skirts, or dresses that are at least no higher than three inches above the bend of the back of the knee.” Its list of forbidden items, which also includes pants with holes above the knee, “clinging garments,” and shirts with straps narrower than three inches across, among other apparel, is defined as “non-exhaustive” and left up to teacher and administrator discretion.
Keith Ward, communications director for the school district, said in a statement, “The dress code applies to everybody. You may have differences in the types of clothing that are chosen to be worn by one or the other, but it applies to everybody the same way.” Huntsville City Schools did not respond to a request from Rewire for comment.
To be sure, some dress code regulations are based on safety. But based on student input, it is clear that the enforcement of the dress code, especially rules involving tight or revealing clothing, is often disproportionately focused on young women. After all, students point out, boys wear legging-type attire to school when they wear football or baseball pants, or tank tops with gaping underarm holes in the form of basketball jerseys. In fact, they often do so on game days. But these clothes are not only seen as appropriate, according to students; administrators view them as buttressing school spirit. However, when girls wear similar clothes, they say they are dismissed from class or sent home from school.
For students at Grissom, Thompson’s post on Facebook was a compelling reason to speak out. On Friday, August 21, 82 boy and girl students, ranging in age from freshmen to seniors, defied the dress code by wearing leggings, jeans with holes along the thigh, and tank tops in a “Stand Against the Dress Code” action. They wrote in their Facebook event: “Legs and arms are not sexual and under aged [sic] girls should not be kept from learning because we are victims of sexualization and control issues in our school.” Several young women were sent home for this action and their apparel, according to their mothers; those who remained chanted in the halls between classes, “Boys aren’t animals, girls aren’t prey!”
Huntsville City Schools’ Student-Parent Information Guide states that “students have the right to express their opinions verbally and symbolically as long as such expression does not infringe upon the rights of others …. The use and display of oppressive signs, flags, and symbols by individual students are prohibited.” Still, Wolf reported that signs bearing the words, “Boys aren’t animals, girls aren’t prey” were taken down by the end of first period.
Raven Rice, a junior at Grissom, noted that the student conduct handbook encourages students to “dress for success.” But, she continued, administrators are really “saying [our clothes] are a distraction.”
Male students, too, protested the idea that dress codes were there to prevent “distractions” among students. As freshman Tyler Smart put it in an interview with Rewire, “Guys are being blamed for the dress code and I’m here like, ‘Nah, the teachers are the reason we have dress code,’ and I swear if I hear the excuse guys are all horny rapists again I’m gonna be mad.”
Students also rejected the idea that the onus is on female students to control others’ reactions to them. Rice pointed out, “The distraction excuse is overused. … This is promoting rape culture and is setting us back 40 years in feminism where saying what a girl wears validates rape or whatever happens to her, as if clothing means anything about character.”
Grissom High School has not yet responded to the protest. Students point out that they are not asking for the dress code to be abolished altogether; they are asking that it is not enforced in a way that singles out and punishes girls. They intend to keep protesting until they get a response, they told Rewire, who also reached out to parents with regard to participating in future actions.
And they are doing so in an explicitly feminist framework. As Thompson noted, both in her Facebook post and in an interview with Rewire, “Gotta love feminism. I’m looking to start a revolution here, everyone is welcome to join.”