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The Importance of Inclusive School Dress Codes

Post submitted by Kimmie Fink, Welcoming Schools Consultant

Administrators, teachers and support staff seeking to make their elementary schools more welcoming places are often faced with implementing a number of structural shifts.

One school policy to reconsider?  The dress code.

It can seem a daunting prospect to rewrite a dress code to be fully inclusive, but these basic tips from HRC’s Welcoming Schools should make the process more manageable.

As school staff consider new dress code rules and regulations, they should be guided principally by the following assumption: a dress code should never target specific identities. That is, no policy should discriminate against any student on the basis of gender identity, sexual orientation, sex, race, ethnicity, religion, or any other aspect of an individual’s identity. Therefore, rules prohibiting hijabs, natural Black hairstyles, or long hair for boys are inconsistent with the spirit and purpose of the dress code. Dress codes should allow students the most choice possible in a way that neither creates a hostile environment nor restricts their individuality.

Beyond this guiding principle, there are a number of other considerations for nondiscriminatory dress codes:

  • Rules should not reinforce gender stereotypes (e.g. “Girls must wear dresses.”) Avoid gender-specific policies altogether and instead allow all students the same clothing choices regardless of gender.
  • Dress code infractions should be considered minor, and discipline should not involve removing a child from their learning environment. School staff should also avoid shaming (in the form of “Dress Code Violation” shirts or measuring straps).
  • All students should be allowed to dress in a manner that is comfortable to them, conducive to their learning and in accordance with their gender identity (this is especially important for transgender and non-binary students).  
  • Consider a model policy like Portland Public School’s that simply mandates which body parts must be covered and what items must be worn (top, bottom, shoes) for all students.

Transforming a dress code requires commitment and collaboration among the entire school community from students to bus drivers to administrators to families. However, the process is a worthwhile one if it results in a policy that respects the individuality and preserves the dignity of each student who walks through the school’s doors.

HRC’s Welcoming Schools is the nation’s premier program dedicated to creating respectful and supportive elementary schools in embracing family diversity, creating LGBTQ-inclusive schools, preventing bias-based bullying, creating gender-expansive schools, and supporting transgender and non-binary students.