- The U.S. Department of Education should develop resources for schools on creating equitable dress code policies to reduce subjectivity and exclusionary discipline for violations, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report to be released Tuesday.
- Schools that enforce strict dress codes have statistically significant higher rates of discipline that remove students from the classroom, the report said. Additionally, schools that enforce strict dress codes predominantly enroll Black and Hispanic students.
- GAO is also recommending that the Education Department provide resources to schools, districts and states on equitably enforcing discipline policies, including dress codes.
GAO was asked to study school dress codes and discipline policies in a committee report for the House version of the 2021 appropriations bill for the Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services departments.
House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Virginia, and Rep. A. Donald McEachin, D-Virginia, had also requested that GAO look into less formal removals from school that aren't documented as suspensions.
In an emailed statement to K-12 Dive, Scott said the report shows that unequal enforcement of dress codes disproportionately impacts girls, students of color, and LGBTQ students — and can lead to unsafe outcomes.
"Additionally, many school districts do not report cases of suspension or expulsion, leaving students unsupervised and without the support they need to get back on track,” Scott said.
Scott said he anticipates forthcoming disciplinary guidance from the Education Department will address the disparities and give districts resources to help all students succeed.
School district officials and national organizations told GAO researchers that determining dress code violations is often left to interpretation and can lead to body shaming and students being embarrassed. In some cases, dress codes that require measuring students’ bodies and clothing may involve adults touching students.
Nearly all K-12 public school districts (about 92%) have a policy on student dress, according to GAO's review of publicly available district dress code policies. Dress codes more frequently restrict items typically worn by girls — such as short skirts, spaghetti strap tank tops, and leggings — than those typically worn by boys — such as muscle shirts.
GAO estimated about 90% of districts prohibit at least one item of clothing typically worn by girls, compared to 68% of districts limiting one type of typical boy clothing.
Researchers reviewed 10 years of discipline data related to dress code violations as well as conducted interviews and other document reviews over the past year. Here are additional findings from the GAO study:
- More than four in five predominantly Black schools and nearly two-thirds of predominantly Hispanic schools enforce a strict dress code, compared to about one-third of predominantly White schools.
- A higher percentage of schools in the South enforce a strict dress code, with just over 70% of schools in the West South Central states enforcing a strict dress code. In contrast, less than 30% of schools in the West North Central states and in New England enforced a strict dress code.
- Most dress codes dictate that students’ clothing must cover specific body parts, applying most frequently to clothing typically worn by girls, such as halter or crop tops. For example, 64% of dress codes prohibit clothing that exposes a student’s midriff.
- About 60% of districts use measurements to determine if student clothing is permitted. But about 93% of dress code policies use phrasing that's open to interpretation with words such as "revealing" and "immodest."
"While school districts often cite safety as the reason for having a dress code, many dress codes include elements that may make the school environment less equitable and safe for students," the report said.