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Hamilton public school board updating dress code policy amid review

Students from Waterdown District High School were joined by the trustee and councillor for Ward 15 as they staged a rally on Friday, Oct. 15 calling for changes to the HWDSB's dress code policy. Submitted by Katelyn Urbanic, student at Waterdown District High School

Trustees with Hamilton’s public school board have unanimously approved a motion to review how it enforces student dress following criticism that certain students are being unfairly targeted.

Two student trustees introduced the motion forward at Monday’s Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board meeting, sparked by demonstrations at Waterdown District High School after an ill-timed announcement from the school principal that reminded students about appropriate dress.

The announcement came just days after Hamilton police announced they were investigating reports of sexual assault and sexual harassment at the school, with some students saying they felt the principal was engaging in victim-blaming.

“We want to make it very clear that the purpose of this motion is to ensure our appropriate dress policy is equitable, that it does not target female and female-identifying students, and that it is not used to shame or blame victims of sexual harassment and or sexual assault,” said student trustee Aisha Mahmoud during the virtual meeting on Monday.

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The motion, which asks staff to review the code to remove outdated standards and to develop a new policy, passed unanimously.

Read more: Hamilton’s public school board expected to discuss dress code policy amid Waterdown demonstrations

A second HWDSB school administrator has issued an apology related to the conversation around the dress code.

Laura Bartkiw, principal at Dundas Central Elementary School, sent a letter to families over the weekend regarding “dress code concerns.”

While it’s not clear exactly what was said, the letter references “a conversation about appropriate dress that treated male and female students differently, while alienating those with non-binary identities.”

“We also apologize for implying that the way girls dress could be a factor in unwanted male attention,” Bartkiw wrote. “We caused harm. We are working to address it and ensure it does not happen again.”

During the Monday night board meeting, several trustees expressed concern that the conversation around dress codes has been happening for a long time without any action being taken until now.

“Both my daughters and many other female students over the years have spoken about how the dress code makes the female students feel unfairly targeted,” said Ward 15 trustee Penny Deathe, who sponsored the motion alongside Ward 3’s Maria Felix Miller.

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She said those who compare school dress codes to dress codes in a place of business aren’t accurate because students “can’t quit or choose to work elsewhere.”

“School is a place to learn, a place [for students] to discover who they are, a place to feel safe and accepted as has been outlined in this motion, and a place where we’re willing to have tough conversations so we can come to a place where all students feel they belong.”

Read more: Principal apologizes in letter to students, parents for Waterdown High dress code announcement

While a review of the dress code policy isn’t expected to happen right away, associate director Sue Dunlop said a memo will be sent out on Tuesday to principals, vice-principals, and school staff about “updated guidelines” for student dress.

“In addition, our communications department is working on a message for families and students so that you can also see what is being done in the interim while we develop the more comprehensive guidelines,” said Dunlop, adding that staff will also look what other boards are doing when it comes to dress codes.

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Ward 13 trustee Paul Tut said he was already concerned hearing from students about the outdated policy, but said the Monday night discussion left him “even more troubled” that administrators who single out students through the dress code aren’t being held accountable for their actions.

“The beliefs of certain teachers and administrators should not be tolerated in this board, particularly when it relates to sexism,” said Tut, becoming audibly emotional during his comments.

“I’m quite frankly getting tired of hearing students coming forward and saying they’re being targeted. They’re being victimized. They’re being traumatized. At some point in time, we’ve got to start saying, you know what? enough is enough. And I know we’ve already said that at previous meetings on other issues, enough is enough. And we’re still back here … dealing with the same type of hurt that these students are experiencing and they’re coming forward.”

Read more: 3rd-party team to review governance practices at Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board

Manny Figueiredo, director of education at the HWDSB, said the issue is that up to this point, there has been no consistent policy that school administrators have been able to follow.

He said some school administrators have adapted while others have adhered to an old handbook that was created years ago and was meant to advise parents on appropriate school dress.

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“So we’re going to have to really clearly identify the expectations, give our school administrators an opportunity to then be held responsible with their staff around this,” Figueiredo said. “And if we have incidents that we feel are violation and students feel their human rights are being violated, there is a process to put this forward.”

He also acknowledged that some staff will feel “uncomfortable” about challenging their own beliefs about the dress code but if they refuse to adapt, that’s when action will be taken.

“What I’m hearing from the students this evening and our students from Waterdown about how they’re being approached and the ways they’re being approached, it’s not about respectfully, whether staff feels comfortable or not. It’s about our students and their identity and coming to school feeling safe.”

Late Tuesday, the board sent out a statement on its plans to review its enforcement of student dress and explain that there currently is no board-wide dress code policy.

“Recent events in schools have shown that in the absence of system direction, schools may have been enforcing an outdated dress code in a disproportionate manner that targets female-identified students without considering non-binary views and identities,” reads the statement.

“This is a violation of the Human Rights Code. ”

The statement includes interim guidelines for HWDSB staff to follow in “a fair and consistent way” while it develops system-wide guidelines for student dress.

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Those interim guidelines for student dress are:

  • Will wear a top and bottom layer of clothing of opaque material
  • May wear tops that expose arms, shoulders, stomachs, midriff, neck lines, chest and straps but will cover the nipples
  • May wear bottoms that expose legs, thighs and hips and expose straps and waistbands, but will cover the groin and buttocks
  • May wear any headwear or head covering that does not obscure the face including but not limited to durags, ball caps, head scarves etc.
  • May wear dress or headwear requirements to support religious/creed accommodations and similar human rights accommodations
  • May not wear undergarments as outerwear
  • May not wear anything that promotes or symbolizes drugs, alcohol, illegal activity, hate or discrimination, profanity, pornography; that incites violence or harassment; or threatens health and safety
  • May not wear anything that depicts or displays hate speech targeting groups based on race, ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, religious affiliation or any other protected groups

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