Just months after a group of students at Indian Trail High School in Kenosha, Wis., won a yearlong battle against their school board for the adoption of a fairer dress code, the ACLU is getting involved in ongoing efforts to address the district’s discriminatory enforcement of rules in regard to young women.
Back in March, a group of students who had formed the Indian Trail Women’s Rights and Empowerment Group made headlines for their success in implementing a new dress code that would have less of a negative impact on the female student body. But even though parents and proactive students were able to claim victory with the removal of the ban against yoga pants, leggings, and tank tops, people across the district have been filing reports with the local ACLU affiliate regarding continued enforcement of the school’s old rules.
According to Asma Kadri Keeler, an attorney with the ACLU of Wisconsin, the organization began investigating reports against the district prior to the community coalition’s success in March. It wasn’t until a report of a student being shamed despite the updated dress code in July, however, that they decided to step in.
“We got a report in July that a female student at a high school in Kenosha had been called out and shamed in front of her classmates, and threatened to be sent home two days in a row from a summer gym class for wearing a tank top,” Kadri Keeler tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “So at that point, we felt that it was appropriate to get involved and sort of send the district a letter letting them know that we were concerned about their enforcement of the dress code, despite having revised the policy.”
Within the letter, the ACLU asked that the Kenosha Unified School District provide assurance that they would commit to anti-discriminatory enforcement of the latest dress code — including proper training for teachers and administrators so that isolated incidents of inappropriate enforcement wouldn’t take place. When the district responded with a blanket statement claiming that they were “working on it,” the organization decided to provide some extra help.
“We didn’t get a sufficient response,” Kadri Keller says. Instead, she had to rely on community members to tell her about the dress code guidelines document that provided school staff loose direction on how to enforce it. The latest letter that the ACLU sent on Monday included further recommendations on how to improve those enforcement guidelines.
Two of the biggest recommendations that Kadri Keller details are to make a binding commitment to nondiscrimination in writing and to prohibit harassment and body-shaming when it comes to dress code enforcement. However, two of the most important recommendations that she says aren’t always considered are eliminating or reducing the amount of time that students are pulled out of class for an alleged violation, and creating a way to collect the data on dress code violations.
“During this entire process, we learned that the Kenosha Unified School District does not keep track of how often they cite people for dress code violations,” Kadri Keller explains. “Not only do they not write any of that down when they remove a kid from class or send them home, or put them in in-school suspension, they don’t ever write down why. So we’ve got all of these reports from people that this is happening, but when you ask the school district to produce any records, they can’t.”
She continues, “We really highly recommend that they institute a policy that requires data collection. And with that, we hope that they’ll include the nature of the offense, the race of the student, the gender, the age, along with the teacher or staff member involved in the incident, so we know for monitoring purposes moving forward that Kenosha’s committed to accountability on behalf of their staff.”
Another part of the issue that isn’t being recognized enough is just how widespread this dress code problem is, and how instances across the country are often the result of the same biases.
“Our position is that this is primarily a sexist gender issue,” Kadri Keller tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “These incidents that are cropping up all around the country that various ACLU affiliates and ACLU national are involved in revolve around girls and young women.”
She adds, “But we certainly have a larger argument here because those issues directly impact other issues. We talk about the disparate impact of discriminatory enforcement against girls, but you can take that a little further, if you kind of narrow down and realize that yes, it’s against girls, but even more so, amongst girls of color. And so, I think that there are a bunch of other issues wrapped up into this.”
In regard to the isolated incidents in Kenosha, the district’s chief communications officer, Tanya Ruder, sent this statement to Yahoo Lifestyle:
The Kenosha Unified School District takes seriously its obligation to provide students with the opportunity to participate in an educational environment free from discrimination and harassment. We have taken reasonable steps in order to ensure that the student dress code policy is fair on its face and in its enforcement. In spring 2018, the policy was reviewed and approved for rollout to students and staff at the start of the 2018-19 school year and has been going very well since the opening of school on Sept. 4. We look forward to a successful school year for students, staff and the community.
Beyond the actions that the district has already taken, Kardi Keller hopes that schools recognize how important these recommendations really are.
“The focus really needs to be on the fact that these dress codes are unevenly enforced against girls for wearing clothes that are considered a distraction to boys in the classroom,” she says. “And that’s a negative reinforcement of gender stereotypes and how girls should dress, and it of course privileges a boy’s ability to learn and concentrate over a girl’s comfort.”
She concludes, “We really hope they take that into consideration and take it seriously, and make a commitment.”
Read more from Yahoo Lifestyle:
• Mom starts petition to fight ‘witch hunt’ of dress code
• Parents are outraged after charter school turns away students for minor dress code violations
• Girl’s dress-code protest shirt lands her in juvenile detention for 6 days