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Castle High School implements more equitable dress code

Dress code challenges uncover need for BOE, legislative protection of students

News Release from HSTA, August 18, 2022

Castle High School is just a few weeks into a new, more relaxed dress code, and English teacher Jamie Stidger is “doing the happy dance” along with her colleagues and students. For the first time in her 20-year tenure at Castle, Stidger won’t have to battle dress code violations that caused discomfort, embarrassment, and missed class time for her students.

Castle’s new dress code has far fewer restrictions for students than its predecessor, and is built around the following principle:

  • Certain body parts must be covered for all students all of the time: Clothes must be worn in a way such that genitals, buttocks, and nipples are covered with opaque material. Cleavage should not have coverage requirements.

The new policy stipulates that students must wear at least a shirt, bottom, and footwear, while allowing previously banned items, like midriff-baring shirts and tube tops.

“Students should be able to dress comfortably for school without fear of, or actual, unnecessary discipline or body shaming,” Stidger said. That includes, for example, the antiquated perspective of not allowing girls to wear spaghetti-strap tops due to the belief that they will distract boys from learning.

“All students and staff should understand that they’re responsible for managing their own personal distractions without regulating individual students’ clothing and self-expression,” Stidger said.

Clothing with violent language or images, hate speech, profanity, and/or pornography are still restricted.

Previous dress code unfairly targeted students, caused missed class time

Castle High School Principal Bernie Tyrell said that the school struggled with dress code issues as long as she can remember.

“There’s a lot of inconsistency in how teachers were implementing the policy. Kids were getting targeted and were just calling us on it,” she said.

Tyrell said ad hoc teacher committees worked over the years to try to tweak and revise the policy, but after lengthy reflection, she realized “not having a strong rationale as to why the current dress code is the way it is created a lot of tension.”

Tyrell pointed out, “most of (the old policy) is targeted around females.”

The old dress code also didn’t include policies to protect students who are a part of the LGBTQ+ community, including nonbinary students, and/or those who are economically disadvantaged.

“Almost half of our school is Title I,” Tyrell said, referring to the high percentage of Castle students from economically disadvantaged families who qualify for free or reduced-price meals in the cafeteria. “Their families don’t have control over what they’re wearing. They might get clothes that are hand-me-downs from siblings or other families. So it really should be that conversation between the parent and the student in terms of what do we feel is acceptable?”

Dress code enforcement would lead to missed class time — anywhere from a period to the rest of the school day — depending if students had access to a change of clothes or if they had to go home to change.

Tyrell said the new dress code is really about “maximizing instructional time, and then just making sure there isn’t any kind of gender, economic, or cultural discrimination in our dress code, and that (students) feel safe.

“For teachers, they want to focus on instruction. They don’t want to have to be regulating what kids wear,” she added.

Student organization, input leads to more equitable dress code policy

Last school year, Tyrell began researching dress code policies across the country and what reputable organizations were doing about the issue.

She also knew that student feedback was key to making a change, and asked the school’s newly-created Feminist Club to distribute a school-wide survey that collected student opinions and feedback about the dress code.

The club, under the guidance of their teacher advisor Lenny Linsky, created a Google form with questions for students to answer about the dress code.

Castle High School junior Jodi Tangonan, last year’s club president, said they “based most of their questions on body positivity, especially since body shaming is what kind of influences what people want to wear, especially also for the LGBTQ community, since they can be limited to what they wear.”

Alana Wesly, a senior at Castle and this year’s Feminist Club president, said “ The Google form asked questions to all of the students about things like if the dress code limits their creativity, or if we feel like it targets specific demographics more than others. And then we just gave that to the principal. And she was very wanting to cooperate with us. She was very open to it, which is helpful.”

Tyrell, the principal, said, “We did the research. We got the student voice back, and then it was like, what’s the right thing to do?”

After reviewing a successful dress code model from a high school in Oregon and reviewing the survey results from Castle’s own student body, Tyrell implemented the school’s new, five-page dress code at the beginning of this school year. Upon reviewing it with students at the start of the year orientation, Tyrell saw elation among students and staff.

“The kids were happy. They’re cheering, and I had three girls the first week hug me,” she said. “It was renewing and revitalizing. The kids felt like they finally were heard.”

She said it was important to discuss the new dress code with students.

“We want to make sure (students) understand the why. It’s important to understand that we’re addressing these issues, and that you’re heard, and kids feel good about who they are, and that you can express yourself at this age as an individual,” Tyrell said. “Once they got that rationale, and then once we loosened up and then really acknowledged their civil rights, that tension was gone.”

Emily Preis, vice president of the Feminist Club and Castle senior said “I’d be really glad if it was an across-the-board action with DOE schools. That’d be super cool, to be a role model for the other complex schools.”

Students push for dress code changes across Hawaii

Project Soar, a student group dedicated to achieving gender and LGBTQ+ equality, advocates for more equitable dress codes in Honolulu. They soon hope to expand their mission statewide.

One of its members, who asked to remain anonymous, explained, “I got nominated for homecoming court, and there was a very strict gender-biased dress code that said girls have to wear a dress and guys have to wear a suit.” The Honolulu-based school has a similar graduation dress code, the student said.

“We are looking into trying to change that and make it more gender equitable, especially since we have a lot of friends who don’t identify as male or female. They felt that that dress code was very discriminatory toward them,” the student said.

Project Soar students are working with state Rep. Amy Perruso (D, Wahiawa, Whitmore Village, Launani Valley), a former Mililani High social studies teacher, to ensure changes like those implemented at Castle High School can occur at other Hawaii schools.

Perruso said, “Part of the reason kids push back so hard on dress code is because it really is so binary, and for kids who fall somewhere different on the spectrum, then it feels not just repressive, but erasing.

“The outcome at Castle is what the students at different high schools want. We’re all organizing around the same time,” she said.

Perruso and Project Soar are exploring how to strengthen protections under Title IX law. Perruso said, “It seems to me that our state codification of Title IX, which we are looking to strengthen, should be a place where we could talk about gender expression.”

She’s also exploring potential policy changes at the Board of Education, noting that a statewide policy would be clear and fairer for everyone.

“I think you can at least establish basic parameters of nondiscriminatory policy to make it clear to principals that they need to make sure that their dress codes and the enforcement of their dress codes are not penalizing students unfairly,” said Perruso.

To her knowledge, no such BOE policy currently exists.

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