What Should You Do If Your School Says You’re Violating The Dress Code?

“The burden of dress codes falls disproportionately on black girls, especially curvier students,” says civil rights attorney Alexandra Brodsky. She offers these tips for students who feel singled out.

Students in Washington, DC get in trouble for wearing clothing like this. Left to right: Nasirah Fair is wearing spaghetti straps; Jillian Towson’s skirt is considered too short; Fatimah Fair’s shoulders are exposed. (Photos by Hilary Woodward.)

Too often, students miss out on the chance to learn simply because of what they wear or how they style their hair. And because of stereotypes and biases, the burden of dress codes falls disproportionately on black girls, especially curvier students.

Here are five things you can do if you feel like you have been discriminated against because of your school dress code:

1. Learn your rights. Federal law prohibits schools from discriminating against students based on race, sex, and disability. Read up on your rights and show your school that you know your stuff. The National Women’s Law Center has also put together specific resources and tips for girls of color. Your school may be less likely to treat you unfairly as a result.

2. Talk to a trusted adult. You don’t have to face discrimination alone. Tell a parent or other adult you trust about what happened and how it made you feel. Ask for their help.

3. Make a paper trail. Create a record of unfair treatment. Take notes on meetings with administrators and save any emails. You may want to take pictures of the clothing you get in trouble for wearing.

4. Advocate for a better policy. Talk with like-minded students and families. Together, identify problems with your school’s dress code and draft solutions. (You can find some common problems with dress codes and some recommendations in the National Women’s Law Center’s new report, Dress Coded.) Schedule a meeting with your principal or get on the agenda for a school board meeting. If they aren’t receptive, consider organizing a petition or protest. You may want to contact local media, too.

5. Talk to an attorney. If you need back up, contact the National Women’s Law Center’s Legal Network for Gender Equity to connect with an attorney who will offer, at the very least, a free consultation.

Alexandra Brodsky is an attorney and Skadden Fellow at the National Women’s Law Center, where she litigates and advocates to end discrimination against girls of color in schools. Previously, she served as a senior editor at Feministing.com and founding co-director of Know Your IX, a youth-led organization combatting gender violence in schools. She tweets at @azbrodsky.

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