The girl raised her hand in English class. She had a question. What she got instead was a one-way trip to the main office – and an unexpected appointment with the administrator in charge of discipline.
That’s because when the freshman at Trabuco Hills High School raised her hand, the motion exposed about 2 inches of her bare midriff.
Boom! Dress code violation. Luckily for her, she got off with a warning. But throughout middle school and high school in Mission Viejo, this student repeatedly got busted for what she considered to be minor dress-code violations.
Shorts too short. Shoulder straps on her top too thin. Skirt exposing too much skin above her knees. The violations cost her a couple of Saturdays for in-house school detention.
I know this because that student was my daughter, Reina, who graduated from Trabuco Hills in 2014. Now 19, she has strong opinions about dress codes at public high schools. More about Reina in a minute.
Recently, there’s been quite a lot of noise in the media and on social media sites about high school dress codes – specifically, whether they unfairly target girls.
Take the case of a Canadian teen who received detention in May for wearing a full-length halter dress. The problem with the dress? It exposed too much of her shoulders and back, according to school officials.
Or the school in the United Kingdom that faced a furious storm of backlash in May from parents and students when it announced plans to ban girls from wearing skirts because they make male teachers feel “uncomfortable.”
Or, closer to home, the outrage that recently ensued when 25 girls at Vista Murrieta High School in Murrieta were pulled from class because, they were told, their dresses were too short. Based on several pictures of the allegedly inappropriate dresses that the girls posted on social media sites, I had to wonder: What were those Murrieta administrators thinking?
Many outraged students are voicing their causes on social media and, in many cases, via school demonstrations.
With the new school year in full swing for many students, it’s not unreasonable to assume that Orange County will see its fair share of school dress code controversies.
Now, I think everyone can agree that schools must have standards when it comes to what students can’t wear. Schools are a learning environment. No one should show up wearing blatantly offensive or inappropriate clothing. People are there to learn, not leer – or feel that their sensibilities have been violated.
Gang insignias. Expletives. Hate language. Pro-drug messages. These are all no-brainer dress code violations.
So are pants that sag below the underwear (I’m talking to you, dudes), bare feet or clothes that belong in a Victoria’s Secret catalog.
But where is the line drawn? Who’s to say whether 4 inches above the knee is too much skin, vs. 5 or 3 inches? And hey, aren’t we mostly talking about what girls are wearing?
What about the boys?
That’s the gist of the recent swirl of controversy about school dress codes: Girls feel they are unfairly being targeted because their attire can be “distracting” to male students and teachers. Additionally, boys are not necessarily being taught to avoid leering, catcalling or harassing their female classmates.
Laura Bates, co-founder of The Everyday Sexism Project, wrote in a recent opinion piece in Time magazine: “When a girl is taken out of class on a hot day for wearing a strappy top, because she is ‘distracting’ her male classmates, his education is prioritized over hers. When a school takes the decision to police female students’ bodies while turning a blind eye to boys’ behavior, it sets up a lifelong assumption that sexual violence is inevitable and victims are partially responsible. Students are being groomed to perpetuate the rape culture narrative that sits at the very heart of our society’s sexual violence crisis.”
Strong words, indeed. And words echoed by my daughter.
“I think dress codes are completely sexist and unfair,” Reina said. “We as girls are told that we can’t wear anything too revealing because it’s distracting to guys. That basically tells us that boys’ education and focus is more important than ours, because we have to miss class time in order to go to the office and change, or even get sent home.
“It oppresses us and makes us feel like we need to be ashamed of our bodies because it teaches us that our bodies are dirty and inappropriate and need to be hidden. Dress codes make us feel shameful.”
Orange County public high schools don’t have a uniform dress code – “uniform” as in the same dress codes applying to all schools. Some dress codes apply to an entire school district, while other districts allow schools to come up with their own.
But the language contained in the dress code at Trabuco Hills High is typical of all O.C. public high schools: “While on campus or at a school-sponsored event, students shall be dressed and groomed in an appropriate manner which will not detract from or interfere with the educational environment, instructional program or general morale. Clothing and shoes must be worn at all times.”
Clothing must cover undergarments at all times, according to Trabuco Hills High’s student handbook. And “form fitting” athletic wear is not allowed.
Candy Mack, an award-winning honors science teacher at Los Alisos Intermediate School in Mission Viejo, said dress codes are just as important in middle school as they are in high school. She explains to her students that going to school is their “job,” and therefore students must wear clothes that would be appropriate for an adult workplace.
Mack, who also was named O.C. Teacher of the Year in 2003, uses humor when talking about what is appropriate and not appropriate to wear.
“Imagine if you saw me wearing something where you could see my (undergarments),” Mack told her students. “How would that make you feel?”
The students get the point.
Mack said the reality is that middle-school boys likely are more prone to being distracted by what a female student is wearing than vice versa.
It’s important to have a dress code that doesn’t emphasize girls’ attire and that rules be enforced fairly, irrespective of gender, Mack added.
Daniel Castle, 20, a student at Long Beach City College, went to Trabuco Hills High School. He believes that dress codes are, “in a way,” sexist, but notes that experts say men tend to reach their sexual prime by age 18, while women don’t until age 30.
“In a typical high school environment, with this proven fact in consideration, it seems reasonable to assume that more males are ‘acting out’ sexually than females, so in a way, the heightened security on female attire is somewhat justified,” Castle said. “However, it does not excuse high schools from being harder on them than males. If one gender has to follow strict guidelines, the other should follow them as well. It’s only fair.”
I have a solution to this thorny issue: Require all high school students to wear uniforms, as they do at parochial high schools.
I attended Damien High School in La Verne. Damien is an all-boys Catholic high school, so the issue of suffering from swivel neck because of what a female classmate was wearing didn’t exist.
So I endorse the words of Ray Dunne, principal of Santa Margarita Catholic High School in Rancho Santa Margarita, who said:
“The mission statement of Santa Margarita Catholic High School talks about our students having a positive sense of self-worth, self-discipline and personal responsibility. The wearing of a school uniform helps develop all those attributes as well as not putting individual students in a position of having to ‘compete’ clothing-wise with others while at school, thus helping to build a sense of community.”
I ran the idea of mandatory high school uniforms by Reina.
“Heck no,” she said, in her typically understated way. “That’s insane!”
OK, smarty pants. So what’s the solution?
“I think as long as you’re not walking around begging to be arrested for public indecency,” Reina said, “then you should be able to go to school.