Banning skirts isn't the way to deal with problematic school dress codes, as one school attempted to do. Let's focus on learning instead of policing attire.

girl in short skirt at school
Credit: Emma Innocenti/Getty Images

Defining appropriate versus inappropriate when it comes to clothing for children, tweens, and teenagers is a task that can seen insurmountable because so much of it is subjective. That’s especially true for school dress codes, a hot topic in recent years.

Implemented in the name of "appropriateness," school dress codes vary from school to school, but often end up unfairly targeting female and female-identifying students. Young women especially are routinely subject to being sent home for wearing things like yoga pants that are too tight, long-sleeved dresses that are too short, or short overalls deemed inappropriate for class.

"School dress codes are not consistently enforced across genders and across body types," says NaChé Thompson, an educational consultant and former teacher based in San Bernardino, California. "Girls with bigger bodies are disproportionately disciplined for dress code violations."

In an effort to level the playing field, one school in the United Kingdom recently made headlines for banning skirts altogether and enforcing a "gender neutral" attire rule that requires all students to wear pants. School officials argue that the move will eliminate the need for skirt length checks and be more accommodating for transgender students. While that’s great, backlash to the new rule has been swift, and some protestors have said that students should have the option to wear skirts if they'd like.

"To make it gender neutral they have to let everyone wear skirts or trousers and have that choice," Libby Murray, a student at the school in question, told BBC.

Getting rid of skirts entirely sends the message they're inherently inappropriate, which only adds to the problem. What's more, it's discriminating against students who may feel more comfortable in a skirt than in pants. As someone who would rather wear almost anything other than pants, I know my days in school would have been miserable if I'd been told I couldn't wear a skirt. That said, there's no doubt that gendered dress codes have become passé and perhaps even irrelevant in 2019. But a decision like this one is likely to leave many students feeling more disenfranchised and frustrated than they already do over strict dress codes in their schools.

More than half of America's public schools enforce a strict dress code, according to findings from the National Center for Education Statistics. Other research, including a recent report from the National Women's Law Center, found these dress codes often disproportionately target the female population, especially black students. And being reprimanded for what's worn in school ultimately can affect academic achievements.

"We know that the inequitable enforcement of dress code policies, and often the policies themselves, contribute to students being disciplined in ways that cause them to miss valuable instructional time," says Thompson. "In my experience, students can really disengage from the school community over time as the result of constantly being punished for dress code violations."

While dress code policies are intended to limit distractions to the academic environment, explains Thompson, removing students from classes, requiring them to leave campus, and giving them consequences for their attire is what actually distracts from the learning environment.

Getting rid of dress codes altogether could be the easiest fix. It would put the onus largely on parents to regulate what’s considered appropriate attire for the classroom, and not single students out. In the meantime, instead of schools dictating, enforcing, and punishing based on a random set of rules from administrators, they should poll the entire educational ecosystem—from teachers to students to parents—to really understand the differing opinions on dress codes. Doing so might not solve the problem of unequal enforcement entirely, but it will likely leave people, especially students, feeling involved and part of the conversation, as opposed to being singled out time and time again.