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Students celebrate dress code reform in DeKalb Schools

DeKalb County

Students celebrate dress code reform in DeKalb Schools

DeKalb County School District Administration and Industrial Complex on Mountain Industrial Blvd. in Stone Mountain. Photo by Dean Hesse

By Jaedon Mason, contributor 

DeKalb County, GA — On Aug. 2, the DeKalb County School district sent out a letter to parents informing them of the updated dress code for the 2023-2024 School year. 

It was the culmination of months of activism by students – including Anna Katz, Hannah Choi, and Troy Butler – who argued that the language of the previous dress code unfairly targeted women and people of color. 

In the letter, the county stated that the changes “better align with the evolving societal norms,” and resulted in a revised code “that eliminates gender-specific language and avoids unfairly targeting students from specific cultures”.

The main changes to the dress code are the removal of certain constraints on what students are allowed to wear and the rework of the punishment for violations, eliminating the in-school suspension punishment for first offenses. 

These changes follow a year of organization and lobbying kicked off by Katz, a junior at Lakeside High. In September 2022, Katz received a dress code violation for wearing distressed jeans. She was pulled out of class and sent to the discipline office. Her parents were contacted, but since they were at work and couldn’t drop clothes off, Katz remained in the discipline office.

“I was just sitting there missing class time…watching all these girls getting dress-coded with me and it just felt like such a waste of our school day,” Katz said.

Katz expressed her frustration at the situation to a teacher, Taylor Ohlstrom, who had taught her freshman year. Ohlstrom encouraged Katz to do something if she felt strongly about the issue and committed to supporting her.

Katz then began spreading the word, bringing in her friends Choi and Butler to help organize the effort. Over the next 6 months, things began ramping up. From weekly meetings, to an Instagram account with 400+ followers, to meetings with the principal and their local school board representative. All this culminated in meetings with the interim superintendent and actually addressing the school board itself.

The students’ testimony to the board can be viewed in full here (begins at 1:45:30 and is worth a watch) but in summation, the students used their time collaboratively, each sharing harrowing perspectives of students being afraid of and embarrassed by school administrators enforcing a code that was affecting specifically female (or fem presenting) and students of color at significantly higher rate. The students worked together to present facts and experiences that showed that the previous code didn’t align with the stated values of DeKalb County or with the realities of dress in the modern world. 

A graph showing data students collected after beginning to track who was being penalized for dress code offenses.

Along with their oral presentation, the students drafted and submitted a sample dress code, which the new, current DeKalb school district dress code borrows heavily from. 

The new code removes the ISS punishment until at least the 6th offense, and it omits what was a rather extensive list of specifications and restrictions for the set of clothes currently socially understood as “for girls.”

After the win, Anna, Hannah and Troy plan to create a blog providing resources on how to go about reform, mainly for other students, so they can share strategies on how to be an active part of the world that they live in.

“I think it’s important to remember there is an element of privilege in our approach to this” Hannah Choi said in response to being asked what she took away from this process. “The fact we knew to contact our representative, that we had a teacher to help us out…what this process has shown me is that when the resources and knowledge are available, change can be made.”

Here’s a summary of the most significant policy changes

Students Must:

— Wear suitable clothing that maintains a safe and orderly environment promoting respect, care for self and others.

— Wear a shirt of opaque (non-see through) fabric that covers all undergarments, including during any movement while sitting or standing.

— Wear bottoms of opaque (non-see through) fabric that covers all undergarments, including during any movement while sitting or standing.

— Wear clothing that corresponds with the demands and purpose of the activity in which the student participates.

— Wear protective clothing, headgear, eyewear, etc., required for specific programs, classes, or activities.

— Wear shoes at all times. Footwear that interferes with freedom, movement, or safety is prohibited.

Students Must Not:

— Wear pajamas, pajama shirts, bottoms, or sleepwear of any kind.

— Wear house shoes, bedroom slippers of any kind, or footwear that interferes with freedom, movement, or safety.

— Wear headgear of any kind (religious practices, medical conditions, disabilities, specific school activities are excluded).

— Wear clothing, jewelry, tattoos, piercings, or other body ornaments that disrupt the educational process or endanger the health or safety of other students, staff, or visitors.

— Wear clothing, insignia, symbols, tattoos, piercings, jewelry, or adornments worn or carried on or about a student which promote gangs or the use of controlled substances, drugs, alcohol, or tobacco.

— Wear clothing, tattoos, or other adornments which show offensive and/or vulgar words, pictures, diagrams, drawings, or include words or phrases of a violent nature, a disruptive nature, a sexual nature, politically/socially controversial words or graphics or words or phrases that are derogatory regarding a person’s ethnic background, color, race, national origin, religious belief, sexual orientation, or disability.

Source: DeKalb County Schools

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