Our Opinion: Dress code sexism, not girls’ clothing, creates distraction

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Subtle sexism written into Wilson County Schools’ student dress code — and the uneven and inconsistent manner in which the policy is enforced — has raised the ire of parents, students and community members.

A Saturday letter to the editor written by the mother of a middle-school girl sent home for a dress code violation brought a slew of similar accounts to light on WilsonTimes.com and the Times Facebook page. While many cried foul over the rules, some said they ought to be stricter, even going so far as to suggest school uniforms.

Last revised in 2013, Wilson County Schools Policy Code 6401 requires students to wear shorts “of adequate length to reach the ends of one’s fingertips when the student is standing and the arms are by one’s sides.” Skirts and dresses, the policy states, must be no higher than 3 inches above the top of the knee.

The fingertip test is inherently flawed because the human body comes in all shapes and sizes, and the same pair of shorts could be permissible for one student and unacceptable for another. While the policy is gender-neutral, it’s nearly always girls who are flagged for violations.

Read together with a vague bromide about clothing that is “not disruptive to the teaching-learning process,” that portion of the dress code is sexist in its application to young women. The only way shorts that are a quarter-inch above the fingertips could be “disruptive” is if the school board believes showing a little extra skin will distract male classmates.

Wilson County is far from the only community with a dress code that implicitly holds girls responsible for preventing boys’ eyes from wandering. Across the nation, young women are challenging the faulty logic behind such rules.

“Don’t humiliate her because she is wearing shorts,” reads a protest sign a 15-year-old girl taped to a door at her school in Quebec, Canada. “It’s hot outside. Instead of shaming girls for their bodies, teach boys that girls are not sexual objects.”

By implying that shorts, spaghetti straps, skirts or dresses cause classroom distractions, school districts including our own perpetuate a backward culture of victim-blaming. That same wrongheaded reasoning is used later in life to suggest that women who wear revealing clothing bear some responsibility for street harassment or sexual assault.

Make no mistake, if a boy chooses to leer at a girl instead of participating in the day’s lesson, he’s the one causing the problem. Why not deal with him?

Beyond the sexism, dress codes have little to do with public schools’ mission to educate children and much to do with the personal tastes of school board members, principals and teachers. As an arm of government, school districts have no business regulating modesty. It’s simply an inappropriate role for state agents, and it usurps parental authority.

Whether a skirt is too short or a rock band T-shirt is too edgy is a decision for moms and dads to make. Teachers have enough to do without being deputized as fashion police. Sending a student home for a dress code violation says a child’s appearance is more important to the school than his or her academic progress.

The Wilson County Board of Education should focus our schools on teaching and learning rather than fretting over fabric.