School dress codes: Discriminatory or necessary?

WATCH: As summer approaches, the debate over what not to wear at school is heating up and leading to protests in some provinces. Some young woman are defying that they call old-school rules. Mike Drolet looks at the tricky balance between allowing free expression and prohibiting what’s inappropriate.

TORONTO — School dress codes are nothing new, but the number of highly publicized violations — and oftentimes, demonstrations — seems to be a more recent phenomenon.

Just this week there were two dress code protests in Ontario high schools. In one, students at London’s A.B. Lucas Secondary School donned ripped jeans and tank tops in support of a student who was told her outfit was “inappropriate.” A similar show of solidarity occurred in Etobicoke after 18-year-old Alexi Halket was hauled out of class for wearing a crop top.

READ MORE: Toronto student organizes ‘crop top day’ to protest school dress code

Susan Rodger, who went to an Ontario high school, is all too familiar with what she feels are sexist school dress code policies.

Story continues below advertisement
“When I was in Grade 9 [in the 70s], girls weren’t allowed to wear pants – at all,” she said. “When I was in Grade 10, we could wear pants, but not jeans. And it wasn’t until I was in Grade 11 that girls were allowed to wear jeans. And of course all this time, the boys had been wearing jeans.”

The now 58-year-old fought to keep school uniforms out of her daughters’ high school. She won the battle, but not the war: the uniforms were introduced shortly after they graduated.

As a registered psychologist and associate professor at Western University’s Faculty of Education, Rodger feels strongly that we should all question: where our dress codes come from, whose standards they really reflect, and what kind of impact they have on students.

READ MORE: Female junior high students told their shorts are distracting classmates and teachers

While the given reason for many school dress codes is to “reduce distractions” in the classroom, Rodger doesn’t buy that. She argues that everyone has to learn how to concentrate and not be distracted by those around them, regardless of what young women wear.

“These girls are humiliated, they’re pointed out, they’re described in very discriminatory ways – I think those are the things that are really harmful.”

Story continues below advertisement

READ MORE: Guelph principal tells high school students not to dress ‘skanky,’ students protest

She also believes that, in general, dress codes are detrimental to the development of an adolescent, because they don’t allow a student to grow and express one’s identity in a healthy way.

“Healthy expression of who we are, for teenagers, often comes in the form of how they dress. They don’t have a whole lot of control over anything else.”

Andrea Mrozek, the executive director of the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada, is of a different mindset. She considers dress codes to be important in creating a positive learning environment. And having worn a school uniform herself, she doesn’t believe a strict dress code infringed on her individuality or creativity. In fact, she figures it probably limited peer pressure and bullying.

Story continues below advertisement

Mrozek also warns students protesting dress codes that they could get more than they bargained for: a mandatory school uniform, which in her eyes would eliminate any notion of sexual discrimination.

“So these protests may, in effect, be counterproductive.”

SOUND OFF: Are school dress codes too strict or are they necessary? Share your thoughts and experiences in our comments section, plus check out some of the more unusual recent dress code violations below.


1. A 5-year-old was forced to put pants underneath her “full-length” dress at school, along with a t-shirt over her spaghetti-strap dress.

school dress code
Jef Rouner was outraged when his daughter’s school had an issue with her spaghetti-strap dress. Credit: Jef Rouner

“I didn’t pick up my daughter’s dress at My First Stripperwear. It’s not repurposed fetish gear from a store for very short people,” wrote the girl’s father in an article titled “The Apparently Immoral Shoulders of my Five-Year-Old Daughter.”

Story continues below advertisement

“She’s worn it to church, and in the growing heat she was looking forward to wearing it a lot because it’s light and comfortable.”

2. In France, a 15-year-old was sent home for wearing a long skirt, which the principal felt was “an ostentatious sign” of her Muslim faith.

This sparked the #JePorteMaJupeCommeJeVeux hashtag, which translates to “I wear my skirt as I please.”

3. A girl was banned from school after shaving her head to support her friend with cancer.

4. Texas principal used a marker to “fix” a student’s haircut, because he was concerned the look could be “gang-related.”

5. A high school student was suspended for wearing this dress to celebrate the last day of her senior year last week.

Evette Reay was suspended for wearing this dress to class at West Side High School in Dayton, Idado. Credit: Idaho State Journal

According to her district’s dress code, dresses must reach the top of the knee. Her dress fell a few inches above that.

Story continues below advertisement

Sponsored content