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Woodstock School District Struggles To Update Its Student Dress Code

Rebecca Sananes
Woodstock Union Middle School Principal Dana Peterson and Superintendent Alice Worth look through dress code policies at a school board meeting. The community is trying to collaborate on a dress code update that will apply to 7th-to-12th graders.

What goes into making a dress code in 2016? At Woodstock Union Middle School, the discussion has included gender politics, discrimination policies and Supreme Court decisions.

The school's dress code policy caused uproar in April after students and parents said it targeted only female students. Now the community is coming together to try to update the policy and apply it to all students.

On one of the first warm evenings of the year, in May, a group of middle school girls in shorts, tank tops and jeans gathered outside their auditorium.

They were eager to talk about how they'd each been measured with rulers up their thighs by school administrators who wanted to be sure the girls' skirts and shorts met the 7-inch inseam rule spelled out in the dress policy.

Students say it's not only invasive, but it also doesn't take into account their different body types and shapes.

“Your skirts or shorts should be closer to your knee than to your crotch, but in the actual dress code it says closer to your knee than to your hip, and that's a big difference,” said 13-year-old Molly Shearer about the confusion surrounding the dress code in her middle school. “I think what went down was very wrong.”

Shearer is a part of the newest generation of student activists speaking out against what she sees as discrimination in the dress code. “I wanted to make the school a better and easier place for students coming in,” she said.

She and other students say the dress code, written in 1992,does not make room for transgender students and blames girls' way of dress for boys' bad behavior.

"I wanted to make the school a better and easier place for students coming in." - Molly Shearer, Woodstock Union Middle School student

A couple of weeks earlier, an administrator held a student assembly, pulling the girls out of class. She warned them that the way they dress is distracting to their male classmates.

That's where the trouble began. Parents and community members were outraged, saying that these issues filter into a larger context of sexism in U.S. culture.

Some of their major concerns were that teaching students that girls are responsible for boys' bad behavior, and that boys can't be held accountable for their actions, promotes rape culture.

At a community meeting in May held to help address the issue, the administrator Peg DiBella, who had held the student assembly, apologized to the crowd.

“I agree 100 percent. I don't want anything to encourage a rape culture,” she said into a microphone in the school’s gymnasium where the public forum took place. “The intent was simply to inform.”

"Some of these things start to push into sort of social stratifications that are very difficult to control and manage." - Superintendent Alice Worth

But the issue doesn't involve just one administrator, or even one school district. There are nearly 3,000 petitions on asking for more inclusive dress codes around the country.

Dress codes have been causing public political strife since the Vietnam War era, whenstudents took their fight to the Supreme Court and it was decided students could use their clothing as freedom of speech on school grounds.

The Woodstock Union School Board has not taken the job lightly. 

At a meeting in early June, the committee painstakingly looked over other schools' dress codes from Brattleboroto Portsmouth, New Hampshire, trying to find a way to create a more inclusive policy. And it's more complicated than you might think.

Credit Rebecca Sananes / VPR
One committee member's extensive notes written on the current Woodstock Union Middle School's dress code.

Superintendent Alice Worth has concerns that the issues spilled into discrimination policies and health codes.

“Is there a place for cleanliness and grooming in this policy or in our health policies?” she asked board members. “Some of these things start to push into sort of social stratifications that are very difficult to control and manage, and we want to make sure these things don't end up being a class issue."

The board will be seeking outside legal counsel and revisiting the issue throughout the summer to come to a consensus for a more inclusive 7th-to-12th-grade dress code to last the next five years.

Rebecca Sananes was VPR's Upper Valley Reporter. Before joining the VPR Newsroom, she was the Graduate Fellow at WBUR and a researcher on a Frontline documentary.
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