School Sets the Gender-Neutral Dress Code All Others Should Follow

The Virginia public school district revised their policy, noting that previous guidelines appeared to have targeted female students.

Teens Walking Around University
Photo: Halfpoint/Shutterstock

Every school year, conflicts crop up over school dress code policies. More often than not, the issues stem from widespread gender bias, as girls are more often painted as violators of the policies, which seem hell-bent on body-shaming, sexualizing, and discriminating against female students. But a school district in Virginia recently released a gender-neutral policy that will hopefully set an example for institutions nationwide.

Effective this coming 2019-2020 school year, all Roanoke County Public School students, regardless of gender, must now wear clothing that "cover[s] areas from one armpit across to the other armpit, down to approximately 3 to 4 inches in length on the upper thighs," and "tops must have shoulder straps."

The draft of the new dress code reads: "Roanoke County Public Schools respects students’ rights to express themselves in the way they dress," adding that students are expected to "respect the school community by dressing appropriately for a K-12 educational environment."

Further, the code states that "clothing may not state, imply, or depict hate speech/imagery targeting groups based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, religious affiliation, or any other protected classification."

Students who don't adhere to the new guidelines will not be allowed to attend class and parents will be called if appropriate clothing is not available or refused by the student.

Roanoke County Director of Administration Rhonda Stegall told The Roanoke Times that portions of the old dress code could have been perceived as targeting female students. Language included "undergarments (including bra straps), cleavage or midriffs should not be exposed," and "short/skirt length should be no higher than mid-thigh," while the banned clothing list included the words "shirts with spaghetti straps."

A mother named Jeannie Keen initially kicked off the conversation after her daughter Olivia and "many other girls were dress-coded for wearing athletic shorts" that were deemed too short, just two weeks into sixth grade. "I took a photo of what she had on that day and sent it to my school board rep in order to begin a dialogue," Keen told TODAY. "I also used a gender-neutral dress code model from Portland, Oregon as an example of how it can be done."

Eventually, central office administrators, parents, teachers, central office staff, and student leadership worked together to propose changes, and ultimately 59% of parents who voted approved of the new dress code. The school district also provided a diagram that shows acceptable clothing measurements for students.

dress code diagram
dress code diagram

Don Butzer, the chairman of the Roanoke County School Board, told TODAY that he believes the "new policy is probably the most progressive in Virginia," explaining that the goal was to make the code "as simple as possible."

Ken Nicely, superintendent of Roanoke County Public Schools, shared the following statement with "Roanoke County Public Schools is committed to promoting a school and classroom climate in which all students have a sense of belonging and inclusiveness. Adopting a more gender-neutral dress code is an important part of helping us achieve that goal."

Not only are parents and students applauding the changes, but the American Civil Liberties Union took to Twitter to commend the school district. "To all students in VA: You have the right to be you and wear clothing that expresses your gender identity," the ACLU of Virginia tweeted. "We commend Roanoke County Public Schools for this positive change. Other school divisions should follow suit."

Cheers to that.

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