Opinion: Call for dress code observance raises questions


Ely Loomis (’13) sports an image of Johnny Cash giving some attitude.

Marney Kline, Staff Writer

It was the kind of memo that high school administrators send every day: On Monday, Nov. 7, authorities at the Urban School reminded students to heed the dress code after a series of armpit-revealing tank tops graced the school’s hallways.

Dean of Student Life Charlotte Worsley explained in an email addressed to the entire school that “students are expected to use good judgment and dress appropriately for a school setting,” implying that students as of late are failing to meet these standards.

Most students think the motto “no shoes, no shirt, no service” adequately sums up Urban’s dress code. However, the official rules are actually quite specific. Worsely narrowed down Urban’s definition of “appropriate”: “the hem (of shorts, skirts, and dresses) should clearly be below one’s fingertips when arms are stretched along one’s side.” Also, “students may not wear clothes that show emblems or slogans that are profane or that represent drugs, alcohol or tobacco products.”

Ironically, public nudity is now legal in San Francisco. Yet nudists are not allowed to practice their lifestyle at Urban, possibly because it would interfere with our ability to focus.

Tame as they might be, dress code restrictions raise two questions: To what extent can high school authorities regulate what we students wear? And when do such restrictions violate a student’s First Amendment right to self-expression?

Two recent cases highlight the difficulties of enforcing dress codes. In April 2006, high school senior Heidi Zamecnik was ordered by the administration at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville, Ill., to remove her T-shirt, which read, “Be Happy, Not Gay.” Zamecnik and schoolmate Alexander Nuxoll, who also wanted to wear anti-gay apparel, sued their school in 2007 for infringing on their constitutional right to freedom of speech. After the case rose to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, the U.S. justice system determined that wearing the slogan was within any student’s Constitutional rights. The school amended its dress code to coincide with the First Amendment and paid the two kids $25 each in “nominal damages,” reports the Student Press Law Center (see http://www.splc.org/wordpress/?p=1567 for this article).

In another 2010 case, two middle school girls identified as “B.H.” and “K.M.” sued the Easton Area School District in Penn. after they were disciplined for wearing “”I ♥ Boobies” cancer-awareness bracelets. The Court ruled in favor of the girls, forcing the school to lift the ban on the bracelets. John E. Freund, a lawyer for the school district, expressed alarm at the pro-bracelet court ruling. “The court seemed to give no weight to the fact that we are dealing with middle school kids,” he informed TIME magazine.

At Urban, however, people like Margaux Buehl (’13) are grateful for the school’s relatively liberal dress code. “We can have holes in our jeans and wear tank tops,” she said. “Slootiness should be left for the weekends, however, because that does not contribute to the learning experience,” she added.

That is an important detail. Urban can and should regulate what students — and even teachers — are wearing because certain garments are too provocative and therefore inhibit one’s ability to focus on the SMART Board, lecture, or lab at hand. Most of us can remember a moment when we thought a person’s voice was actually emanating from a prominent pair of breasts, and most likely cannot recall what was written on the board behind the two lumps dominating our scope of vision.

Emily Ming, an exchange student from Kantonsschule Enge in Switzerland who spent two weeks at Urban earlier this year, observed that teenage girls in San Francisco definitely take more fashion risks at school than Swiss girls do.

“If it isn’t really hot, no girl would wear short-shorts to school,” she said. “And all that stomach-showing stuff – you wouldn’t see that around Switzerland.”

Ming also noted the discrepancy between the fashion efforts of teen males from San Francisco and teen males from Europe: “In our high schools, even the guys try and put themselves together. They wear Ralph Lauren and polo shirts; they care about how they look as much as girls do.”

Another Swiss exchange student, Massimiliano Menichelli, who was wearing crisp, tight khakis and smooth leather Sperry boating shoes, agreed. “Why do they dress … ugly?” he asked, referring to San Francisco’s male students. He cited the basketball shorts and “high socks” adorning the hairy adolescent ankles that have permeated his eyesight for the past two weeks of his visit.

The fact is, a lot of San Francisco boys like to dress casually and comfortably. Who is qualified to tell them not to? Menichelli can share his opinion freely, while Urban boys can continue to dress “ugly.”

As much as Urban students would enjoy a self-righteous cause to rally behind, our freedom to express ourselves through fashion remains intact, especially when compared to the dress code at a school like Marin Catholic.

According to Marin Catholic junior Julia Shinner, her school’s “strict” dress code requires “a polo of a certain brand (Mills), jeans without rips, or shorts and skirts below the knees.”

Another student, from Sonoma Academy, related a story of hypocritical dress code censorship, in which he attended school wearing a jacket with a beer brand logo on it. The student said a school official complimented him on the jacket, but later forbade him to wear it. Contacted for comment, Dean of Students Stacy Cohen said that the exchange was consensual and that the student took off the jacket of his own free will.

Urbanites can only look upon such woeful stories of teenage oppression from afar. Luckily, we reserve the right to wear a Metallica T-shirt but relinquish our right to show our G-strings, because we understand how that might hinder our learning experience within these earthquake-safe walls.