Ottawa’s largest school board plans public consultations on its ‘outdated’ dress code
Maizie Schwets was “dress-coded” in Grade 3 and sent to the principal’s office of her Ottawa elementary school for wearing inappropriate attire.
Her violation? A tank top with straps deemed too narrow. She didn’t have a sweater to cover herself up, so a parent picked her up and took her home to change.
Schwets, a confident, articulate 16-year-old, laughs about the incident now, but at the time she felt “embarrassed and terrified.”
The top she felt comfortable wearing was suddenly a source of shame, her shoulder deemed inappropriate to be viewed by others at school.
“It was wrong,” she says.
The question of what’s appropriate to wear at school is a perennial source of controversy, whether the clothing in question is crop tops, tank tops, pyjama bottoms or ripped jeans.
The issue will be front and centre this winter as Ottawa’s largest school board holds public consultations on how to revise a 15-year-old dress code that staff say is outdated.
The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board’s dress code calls for students to embrace “decency” in their clothing, and bans “sexually explicit” or “revealing” dress, among other things. It’s up to individual schools to interpret those guidelines.
A no spaghetti-strap rule has been adopted at some schools. At others, girls have been asked to put their arms at their sides so teachers can check to make sure their shorts or skirts are no shorter than the end of their fingertips. Elsewhere, boys have been warned that muscle-tops are not allowed. Some schools ban hats as disrespectful.
Dress codes have traditionally been sexist, says trustee Lyra Evans. She says regulating tank-top straps and the length of shorts is a way of controlling girls and making them feel responsible for how others react to their clothing. “The idea is that ‘you must be careful about the way you dress because you’ll distract the boys from learning.’”
The dress code should give maximum freedom of expression to students, says Evans.
That’s the approach taken by the Toronto Board of Education, Canada’s largest school board, which instituted a new dress code this fall that operates under the principle that what students wear should primarily be up to them and their parents. Students must cover their nipples, buttocks and groin, and any headwear is fine as long as it doesn’t obscure their face.
In Ottawa, both Evans and trustee Chris Ellis question why hats are still prohibited at some schools. They don’t interfere with learning, says Evans.
In some cases, hats might be connected to a cultural tradition, says Ellis. And while bandanas might initially have been banned at some schools because of possible gang affiliations, he said that’s probably outdated, too. “I’m not saying there isn’t gang activity, but I don’t know if it’s as organized as having their own hats.”
Each school has its own dress code based on the template provided by the board, developed in collaboration with the school council, parents, students and staff.
It’s not easy to find out what they are, though.
The board does not compile dress codes from individual schools, says communication officer Darcy Knoll.
The Citizen phoned 16 schools chosen at random over the past two days, but in most cases no one replied, refused to comment or referred the matter back to Knoll.
An exception was Elmdale Public School, which has posted its dress code online. At Elmdale, which goes up to Grade 6, clothing must be “clean, neat and within the limits of good taste.” Tops must cover the midriff, shorts must be “an appropriate length” and underwear can’t be showing. No hats, hoodies or bandanas are allowed inside, and no bare or stocking feet. Dress that includes racist, sexist or drug and alcohol-related messaging is not allowed, which is required by the school board policy.
The vice-principal at Elmdale says students are respectful and their clothing has not been an issue of concern.
Schwets and her friend Diane Hatheway are both in Grade 11 at Hillcrest High School, where they say the mood is relaxed and they aren’t aware of any conflicts over what students wear.
But they attended two elementary schools where teachers monitored girls to make sure their shorts weren’t above their fingertips, their tank-top straps were at least two finger-lengths wide, and no bra straps were showing.
“It was gross, and it was weird,” said Hatheway. “It was always, ‘Oh, this is a professional environment.’ But I know that’s not what it was, because boys were allowed to sag, and that’s not professional,” she said, referring to boys whose pants hang low down their backsides.
(Principals at both schools did not immediately respond to a query about their current dress codes.)
Both Schwets and Hatheway say they agree with the current ban on clothing that promotes racism, hatred, violence or alcohol and drug use.
But as far as they are concerned, prohibiting “revealing” clothing is both vague and unnecessary. If the rule was dropped, “everything would just be the same, honestly,” said Hatheway. “I feel like they are afraid of students’ saying ‘Oh, no more rules, I think I’ll go to school wearing nothing! Let’s go naked!’ No one is going to do that.”
Some schools have said they would prefer the board had one dress code rather than requiring schools to develop their own, according to the report.
Everything is open to debate during the consultations, which are intended to gather advice before staff come up with a draft policy. The consultations cover a wide range of topics related to safety in schools and codes of conduct, not just the dress code. The board has more than 30 policies and procedures related to school safety. Staff want to identify gaps, eliminate duplication and change out of date or unnecessary requirements.
This week trustees recommended a consultation plan that would include seeking comments this winter and spring from school councils, staff and other groups as well as holding parent forums and focus groups of students.
The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board’s dress code
The board’s current policy is based on the following principles: respect for learning; decency; cleanliness; respect for the rights and dignity of others; safety of persons and property; and the promotion of a drug and alcohol free environment
The board policy says each school’s dress code must ban:
— Sexually explicit or revealing dress
— Dress with wording or graphics that are racist, sexist, profane, demeaning, advocating violence or advocating the consumption of alcohol or illicit drugs
— Dress “associated with gang membership” as recognized by the board’s safe school committee