Clothing is one of the primary ways that students express their personalities and ideas when attending school. It can also be a way to show off the wealth of their family, express gang representation, or create inflammatory situations in an educational environment because of the graphics or words shared. That is why many schools in the United States and around the world struggle with the idea of a school dress code.
When there is a strict dress code policy enforced at individual schools or across an entire district, then those actions may interfere directly with the student’s right to self-expression in some countries. Although most governments allow the local school board the authority to create, enforce, or avoid dress code programs, these policies cannot be instituted if they violate student rights.
The first school dress code law in the United States became active in 1969 after Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent School District allowed educational institutions to limit student expression if there are legitimate concerns that such an activity becomes disruptive to the learning environment. This incident involves several high school students wearing dark armbands to school as a planned protest against the Vietnam War.
A school dress code must balance the need to provide a safe educational environment with the freedom of speech granted to students in most developed nations.
List of the Pros of a School Dress Code
1. It allows students to focus on the educational environment instead of their clothing.
The goal of a school dress code is to create more equality within the student body. When you have a similar style being worn by everyone, then you can set the tone for the atmosphere in your school, on campus, or throughout the school district. This structure gives each child an opportunity to focus more on their studies because the visual discrepancies in socioeconomic status are much fewer. When students feel safe, then the information presented to them for learning can remain more relevant.
2. It reduces the amount of teasing that occurs in the classroom.
When dress codes were implemented in New York City, 68% of parents participating in the program said that their children experienced a general increase in their academic performance. 88% even said that there was reduced teasing between boys and girls because the policy promoted equality throughout the classroom. A vast majority of students also report that they like wearing clothes that are associated with a school dress code, which reduces the amount of tension experienced when trying to get ready for school.
3. It makes it easier for students to get ready for the school day.
When there is a clear school dress code available to follow, then there are fewer decisions for students to make when they are getting ready for the day. If a uniform is mandatory, then there are a handful of color options and clothing styles available that can be worn when in the classroom. You save time when shopping for these items as well because there are only a handful of choices available. Although the cost of new clothes can be a significant expense, the amount of time that parents and kids save when shopping for school apparel can help to offset some of that issue.
4. It offers the potential for hand-me-down clothes in some families.
When a school district offers a consistent dress code policy to follow, then families can save some money on their apparel needs because the uniform or mandated clothing can pass down from one child to the next. When you add this advantage to the opportunities for donated or low-cost items through the PTA and other local organizations, you can avoid the expense of purchasing new items for everyone each year. There will still be some challenges to face since you’ll be storing more clothes for the year in your closets, but the issues tend to be more organizational than financial for many families.
5. It reduces the number of distractions that are present in the classroom.
As children get older, they begin to pay attention to each other more than they do to the curriculum. Clothing choices can make this problem even worse. If the apparel shows off the body, encourages violence, or creates other distractions, then it can impact the performance of every student in the classroom. By creating an effective policy that limits these issues, grades can go up, violence levels can begin to go down, and if there is a lack of branding as part of the school dress code, it can even reduce problems with economic envy.
“A dress code promotes a more serious school atmosphere which emphasizes academics and promotes good behavior,” published Kosher Casual. “Dress codes have proven to increase student achievement by encouraging students to concentrate more on their studies and less on their wardrobe. A de-emphasis on clothing can also save money, as there will be less pressure to keep up with expensive trends.
6. It does not need to be a uniform to create environmental benefits.
When you have a school dress code policy in place, then you have several options available to you that do not necessarily include uniforms. The goal with this option is to create consistency while on campus without being too intrusive on the rights of the individual. You want to allow self-expression in healthy, positive ways while encouraging negative viewpoints to be offered in a manner that is appropriate for the environment.
When this advantage occurs, then it can create a sense of community in the school. Kids find it easier to make friends because there are no artificial barriers in place that suggest it isn’t possible. This loyalty extends well beyond the school years, with alumni from the district often coming together with their children to support the learning process.
7. It allows the community to recognize students for their age.
Because some schools require a specific uniform to be worn when attending classes, any movement with this apparel on in the community identifies that individual as being in the K-12 system (or whatever grade levels are present in the family’s specific school). This requirement makes it easier to identify who might be underage when purchasing a restricted item, such as cold medicine, alcohol, or tobacco products. Teachers can also use this advantage to pick out which kids are their responsibility because they will all be dressed alike.
Some students will try to get around this issue by wearing clothing under their uniform or packing a bag with alternative apparel. Because both decisions can still be controlled by the school dress code policy, it becomes easier to see who might be trying to break the rules.
8. It can help school administrators identify potential strangers on campus.
There were 82 school shooting incidents in 2018, which is the most there have ever been since 1970. Since statistics were first kept in this area in that year, there have been 1,300 total incidents. The next closest year was 2006 when there were 59 incidents. Over 50 kids, teachers, and administrators were killed at their school during 2018 because of this issue. When students must wear specific clothing items, it becomes easier to know who is supposed to be on campus and those who should not be around.
About 50% of the incidents which occur in the United States involve an individual who is not a current student at the school. Knowing who is coming and who is going can help someone stop an incident before it has a chance to start.
9. It is a policy which can save families some money when it includes a uniform.
The average cost for a school uniform is about $30 in most markets, with some families seeing some significant local savings. Pants and skirts are usually in the $17 range, while the shirts or tops are about $13 each. For the price of one designer outfit, the average family can purchase three uniform outfits that can be worn during the week. Then a shift in the routine to do a load of laundry during the week before doing it all on the weekend can help to manage the overall expense of this issue.
Families who rely on thrift stores, donations, and gifts for their school clothing will still struggle with the cost of a dress code policy. When funds are tight, it is usually easier to find clothes that match the regulations without paying for expensive brands.
10. It creates a disciplined atmosphere.
Students and families must follow a disciplined routine to ensure that they are in compliance with a school’s dress code. By creating this expectation before a child ever steps into the classroom, it becomes easier to apply the lessons learned with this advantage in other areas of their life. Some children find it easier to plan for their future career, work on their homework assignments, and even make new friends because they made the choice to be in compliance with this policy, even if it was something that they didn’t agree with in the first place.
11. It can stop gangs, cliques, or unhealthy social groups from forming.
Students of a specific age typically rebel against rules of some type. Since a school dress code seeks to create unity through equality, it can stop unhealthy cliques from forming on campus. When one social group believes they are superior to another one, then the foundation for bullying starts. That is often there are proactive interventions with uniforms or restrictions on clothing items in the first place.
List of the Cons of a School Dress Code
1. It creates another expense that parents must pay, even if they cannot afford the cost.
A school dress code can require parents to follow a specific uniform that their children must abide by when on school grounds. Although most policies only place limits on lewd, graphic, vulgar, or suggestive clothing, there are times when a public school district can require a uniform to be worn. When students must dress a specific way using particular clothing items, then the parents (not the school district) bear the responsibility for the expense. Even if there are scholarships, grants, or hand-me-down opportunities available, some households cannot afford this expense.
Catherine Pearlman had this issue happen with her daughter Casey, so her response to an issue with the school’s dress code was that they could go find the clothing themselves. “I’d schedule a few afternoons and weekends for this endeavor,” she wrote. “I can tell you from experiencing that just heading to the mall, Target, and the outlets won’t cut it.
2. It forces households to do laundry much more often.
Let’s say that you have a family of six at home and all four children in the household go to school where there is a uniform policy in place. Instead of wearing the school clothes all day, the kids will change when they return home to prevent ruining the items. That means you face double the laundry problems at home each week because of the requirement to follow a school dress code. Since your local district isn’t going to compensate you for this extra utility cost, this disadvantage can offset any cost advantage that households might try to find. Over 40% of your utility expenses can come from this one chore in some communities.
3. It creates the potential for a gender bias.
When students have permission to dress the same way no matter what their gender identity or expression may be, then it can create a sense of unity for the classroom. Far too often, the goal of a school dress code is to limit boys to slacks and girls to skirts, which can create conflict with the administrative staff of the school. These traditional garments are not always the preference of this generation. Some girls prefer to wear slacks, while boys would appreciate the benefit of shorts.
If a student is unsure of where they stand on the gender spectrum, then forcing the child to conform to a specific role offers the potential of educational harm for the student in the future. Tori DiPaolo went viral with her yearbook photo in 2017 with the quote she included underneath it: “I’m sorry, did my shoulders distract you from reading this quote?”
4. It won’t eliminate all of the teasing that happens at school.
Kids will find a way to differentiate themselves from one another. Even when a school wants clothing items without brand identification on it, most classmates know which families can spend more on items than others. There are the children who receive discounted school lunches, those who always bring a sack lunch, and then those who pay for a hot meal during the day as well. Even the difference in shoe brands can be enough to create enough socioeconomic differences between students to become a teasing issue.
Then there are all of the physical differences that can start teasing and bullying that a school dress code or uniform cannot cover. It might lessen problems in this area, but the policy cannot stop it 100% of the time.
5. It may create a poor reputation for some schools or districts.
Students who must wear a specific dress code become a reflection of the reputation of that school. When they cause trouble in their community when wearing a uniform, the school’s colors, or some other item associated with the institution, then it can begin to give the district, administrators, and teachers a poor reputation. Should enough of these incidents occur involving groups of kids or families from the same area, then it can reduce enrollments in future years. This disadvantage occurs frequently when there are school voucher programs, waivers, or transfer opportunities available to families.
This disadvantage can occur because of the actions of the school as well. Kelsey Anderson was reportedly told to leave her classroom because her teacher said that she was “plus size” and “busty,” which was distracting to the other students. Not only is this issue a body shaming concern, the incident could lead to potential legal action.
6. It forces the kids to wear clothing options which are not fashionable.
School uniforms create conformity by sacrificing usability. Many of the apparel choices involve institutional branding in some way. They are usually composed of bright colors, often representing the school as well, and made from tough canvas to promote better wear and tear. This design element creates an outcome where the students might not mind wearing the clothing when they go to the classroom, but then they get out of the apparel once they get back home. It is not unusual for kids to split their day into “school clothes” and “after-school clothes,” which can impact how they approach their day.
7. It can cause teasing and bullying outside of the district.
If students must wear a uniform or follow a strict dress code policy as part of their learning experience, then it is not unusual for them to experience bullying and teasing when they are out in the community. Some schools, even if they are in the same district, do not follow the same standards or policies when it relates to what the kids can wear to the classroom. You might find more opportunities for unity on school grounds, but head out into the community and the story can be very different.
8. It can be enforced punitively, indiscriminately, or through the bias of an administrator.
A seventh-grader was asked to cover up a t-shirt that she wore to school that said, “Why be racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic when you could just be quiet?” Her teacher reportedly claimed that the text was offensive. A high school girl was given an in-school suspension for wearing torn clothing, and when confronted the staff told her mother that “she needed to consider the guys in her class and their hormones when choosing her wardrobe.”
Then there was the high school principal in South Carolina who told students not to wear leggings unless the girls were a size 0 or a size 2. When there is an ambiguous dress code policy in place for a school that is based on personal bias for implementation, then it creates a circumstance where the only people the regulations benefit or those who are enforcing it on the kids.
A Final Thought on the Pros and Cons of a School Dress Code
A school dress code will typically follow common-sense rules that work to maintain the overall learning environment. Shorts might need to go to the knee, while t-shirts shouldn’t have anything vulgar on them – such as swear words or verbiage that could contribute to violence on campus. Some schools will take this idea a step further to create a uniform policy that creates more equality in the classroom.
The only problem with a dress code is that it leads to the policing of students when they arrive at school each day. Administrators monitoring the clothing, and then punish anyone who does not follow it to the letter. There may be benefits to the learning process when there is more equality, but those advantages might wash out when the adults try to enforce the rules aggressively.
The pros and cons of a school dress code work to offer a balance that encourages healthy learning while still offering personal choices whenever possible. With some proactive efforts to resolve the potential disadvantages, most families can manage the issue in positive ways.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.