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School dress code enforcers find themselves under scrutiny [Commentary]

Before you ask, yes, Rachel Paul's mother did let her go out like that, for all the good it did her.

"I saw her leave the house every single morning of the days she's been dress-coded," Terry Paul said.

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It happened again last week, on the very first day of school. Rachel, now a senior at Marriotts Ridge High School in Marriottsville, said that a faculty member (apparently new, as Rachel did not recognize her) stopped her in the hallway to tell her that her skirt was inappropriate for school, and that she would have to change her clothes.

Rachel continued on to her next class, shrugging off the admonishment. She had been there before.

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Later, the two crossed paths again, and the faculty member asked, "Why haven't you changed?"

"Because it's not more important than learning," Rachel replied.

That didn't go over so well, so Rachel ducked into a lavatory and changed into the pink gym shorts she had for her dance class.

"They were shorter than the skirt I was wearing," but the faculty member seemed satisfied, Rachel said.

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Judging by my recent conversations with the Pauls and others, such confrontations happen with more frequency in Howard County schools than I ever imagined. And some parents of middle- and high-school girls have begun to say "enough."

Public school authorities have always imposed standards of dress aimed at inhibiting the teenage libido. Attire that is form-fitting or revealing, they proclaimed, tends to distract students.

This argument ignores that adolescents do experience sexual feelings, regardless of what people around them are wearing, and must learn to deal with those feelings appropriately.

"If we're talking about a spaghetti strap versus a 2-inch strap, is that really going to make a difference" in how a teenager is going to react? asked Lisa Kehle, a mother of two girls in county schools.

Still, the "distraction" argument holds sway with many, educators and otherwise. However, it now faces a challenge that goes like this: Enforcement of such policies disproportionately targets girls and transfers to them the responsibility for boys' self-control and the learning that depends upon it.

"It also reinforces this whole notion that how women and girls look is the measure of their value," added Kehle, one of the organizers behind the HoCo Dress Code Warriors page on Facebook. It has 78 members . While people often come to it as a result of personal experiences with dress-code run-ins, "it seems like most see it as a broader issue," she said.

In the spring, about 40 people, including parents, teens and even a few teachers, gathered at the Owen Brown Interfaith Center to talk about the issues surrounding the school dress code. The anecdotal evidence that emerged suggests enforcement varies widely from school to school.

Howard County Public School System policy prohibits clothing that represents gang affiliation, depicts violence or is sexually suggestive, but beyond that it doesn't get very specific about what constitutes appropriate dress. It singles out attire that "unduly exposes or reveals skin or undergarments," but how does one determine what "unduly" means in this context?

The HCPSS Student Handbook says such clothing "may include: tank tops; halter tops; tops that are strapless, low cut, or expose the midriff; pants worn low or loose that expose skin or undergarments."

Some teachers apply time-worn rules of thumb, such as requiring the straps holding up a girl's top to be at least three fingers wide, or that the hems of skirts and shorts fall below the fingertips when the wearer stands with arms at her side. But those guidelines can be tricky too. One middle-schooler I talked to last week wore shorts that came to just above her knees, but her early-adolescent long arms brought her fingertips well beyond the hem.

"The intention is to balance freedom of expression and a safe, nuturing and orderly environment," HCPSS communications director Rebecca Amani-Dove said of the county's dress-code policy. "Nobody is interested in being the clothing police."

She said the Board of Education will revisit the policy — last revised in 2011 — within the next two years as part of its cyclical review of all policies. The committee advising the board will include representatives of the PTA Council of Howard County and the Howard County Education Association (the teachers union).

If the HoCo Dress Code Warriors have anything to say about it, the board won't just tinker with the policy. Kehle expresses optimism, noting a productive discussion last week with the principal at Oakland Mills High, her daughter's school.

She noted that at a school talent show last spring, some students took the issue public in a poetry-slam performance, which in turn encouraged peers to take it up with the administration.

"That's empowering," she said.

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