Dressed for Equality
Alameda’s new dress code riles the nation, but students are unruffled.
Photo of Rebecca Baumgartner by Lance Yamamoto
When the Alameda Unified School Board voted this summer to adopt a new district-wide dress code — one crafted by student advocates to be equitable and clear — the decision made national headlines. It was the perfect story for an ideologically divided country: a liberal California city trusting kids to dress themselves, and replacing dress code requirements that disproportionately targeted girls.
A dumpster-fire of Twitter and Facebook comments ignited. Supporters argued that the new rules, which no longer outlaw clothing items that girls typically wear — like tube tops, ripped jean, or short shorts — will help reduce body shaming and bring awareness to rape culture. Detractors believe the new rules will put girls in danger, distract boys from their studies, and deny students valuable lessons on “professional wear.”
But so far, in Alameda schools, there have been no issues.
“We haven’t heard of any problems,” said Susan Davis, spokesperson for the Alameda Unified School District. “I think it might have been a bigger deal for people outside our district than inside our district. It’s really been smooth here.”
Ironically, given how many people decried the lack of professionalism among youths today, the new dress code is the result of over two years of advocacy work led by four Lincoln Middle School students — Henry Mills, Kristen Wong, Leo Long, and Abbey Rose — and their teacher, Rebecca Baumgartner.
Three years ago, Lincoln Middle School had a typical dress code, based on district-wide regulations. It banned short shorts, short skirts, hats worn inside, torn jeans, and spaghetti straps. When the student government tried to organize a pajama party, officials stopped them because pajamas were also against the rules.
The staff at the school enforced the dress code, often by sending students to the administrative office for reprimand, even during class. Rebecca Baumgartner, a seventh-grade English teacher at Lincoln Middle School, couldn’t help noticing that girls were disproportionally affected.
“I had students crying in my classroom about these things,” Baumgartner said. “It can be very derailing when you’re confused about why you’re in trouble.”
Kristen Wong, now 14, told the East Bay Times about an incident when she was in sixth-grade: She was worried about going into the administrative office because her shirt came just below her collarbone. Sure enough, an adult in the office gave her a warning about appropriate clothing. Wong described the former dress code as confusing and irregularly enforced.
Abbey Rose told KPIX that she was often pulled from class for small violations, like for having a tear in the knees. “That’s not OK,” she said.
With encouragement from Baumgartner, the middle school’s student leadership class conducted a survey of the student body, with questions about body shaming and dress code violations. The survey proved what students and teachers were noticing: Female students felt disproportionally body shamed by the former dress code and were embarrassed when teachers called attention to clothing violations in front of their peers. Students were confused by the rules because enforcement was irregular. Girls with more developed bodies felt targeted. Students were missing whole class periods waiting for punishment.
The students took the survey results to the school board to advocate for a new dress code. They based the rules on a dress code designed by the Portland, Ore., chapter of the National Organization of Women.
They won. Lincoln Middle School adopted the new dress code for the 2017-18 school year. But the students didn’t stop there. With support from the AUSD, they formed a task force to change district-wide clothing policy.
“The students were amazing because they were the student voice at this table of adults,” said Baumgartner. “It was really empowering for them, and I think for all of us, that the district took them seriously. They wanted a seat at the table and they got it. They really got to take part in writing policy and creating change.”
The policy change is part of a larger conversation taking place about school dress codes disproportionately targeting female students. This summer, a high school in Flower Mound, Texas, was criticized for producing and screening a dress code video that showed girls in athletic shorts being reprimanded for their clothing while M.I.A.’s “Bad Girls” played in the background. No boys appeared in the video, which was shown to thousands of students. Efforts pushing back on dress codes have also erupted in Florida, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Louisiana.
In Alameda, the dress code is now simple, divided into what students “must,” “may,” and “cannot” wear. They must wear opaque fabric over breasts, genitals, and buttocks. They must wear shoes, bottoms, and tops. They may wear ripped jeans, tube tops, and hoodies over their head in class. And they cannot wear clothing that depicts violent images, hate speech, or pornography.
For all students, the new policy is an overwhelming win.