Canada

Winston: Do we really need to impose dress codes on Ottawa high school students?

Students and parents can figure this out themselves. On the other hand, the protesting students should feel relieved that they are not forced to wear burkhas and that they have the privilege of education.

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The recent student protest over a dress-code blitz at an Orléans high school reminded me of my encounter with a dress code at a high school in western Canada more than 50 years ago.

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The principal of the school required any female to kneel while she was being checked for compliance with the dress code he had imposed. This was how he could ensure that her skirt was the appropriate length. If the skirt did not touch the floor as she knelt, it was judged too short and she was asked/told not to wear it to school again.

Yes, it was humiliating and unpleasant — all the more so because the test was for staff.

I was fairly new to teaching and this was my first term at the school. The mandatory inspection took place in the staff room, in front of the rest of the staff. In a slight concession to decency (or indecency, depending on one’s point of view), no teacher failing the skirt-length test was sent home before the end of the day or asked to change on the spot. I don’t know what would have happened if an offending piece of clothing had appeared a second time without alteration. No one ever tested the code.

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As for pants or, heaven forbid, shorts of any length, there was little doubt that they would not have been allowed to darken the school doorstep, whether worn by a student or a staff member. No one would have thought of questioning the principal’s authority in such a matter. At that time, the head of the school had the final word on the day-to-day administration of his small dominion.

All this is a huge contrast to the events in an Orléans high school on May 13. First, there was a mass protest by students angry at being “body shamed” and being told their choice of outfit was inappropriate. Then, their anger at the policy requiring student dress to be “clean, decent and appropriate” was taken seriously when the superintendent of education met with them and promised to review the school’s dress code and the length of shorts that might be judged too short.

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Other rules in the code refer to any portion of underwear being visible, particularly if a top is too skimpy and does not cover the upper body completely. I did not see any word about muscle shirts and wonder whether they are mentioned in the school’s dress code or whether the rules are primarily directed at women’s wear.

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It can be argued that a dress code is a good idea, if students are not required to wear school uniforms as many are in private schools. It’s one way of preparing young people for the world of work and what is considered appropriate dress there. The issue, to my mind, is not so much the rules about dress but the method of enforcement and who should be required to ensure that students stay within the general view of appropriate wear for any occasion. Practicality dictates that you don’t wear a ball gown to do the gardening or a skirt to go mountain climbing.

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Most senior high school students are surely able to decide for themselves what “appropriate dress” means and modify their clothing to fit the occasion and place as well as to blend with current fashion. And for those who are not, isn’t guidance from parents the most effective route? If the code is to remain in force, then private discussion with any offending students would be kinder and fairer than hauling the student out of class in front of others.

On the other side of the coin, the protesting students should feel relieved that they are not forced to hide under burkhas and that they have the privilege of education, as well as the right to protest peacefully. Being required to wear slightly longer shorts is a relatively small restriction by comparison.

Iris Winston is an Ottawa writer.

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