Teen athlete challenges high school's dress code because he wants the right to train shirtless

A cross-country runner at a Sioux Falls, S.D., high school is kicking up dust about a dress code policy that requires athletes, both male and female, to wear shirts at all times regardless of their sport.

Will Howes took his gripe to the powers that be at Lincoln High School on Monday, arguing before the school board that students deserve the right to “take ownership over their own bodies” — and he feels that includes the freedom to practice sports without a top on, should the athlete choose to do so.

Before presenting his case, though, Howes did his due diligence, interviewing fellow athletes and school administrators on a quest for some sort of reasonable justification for the sartorial mandate, which applies to both boys and girls; he contends that he found none. Howes has run cross-country for three years at the school, where the rule has apparently been enforced only in the past month, according to the Argus Leader, a local newspaper.

Howes suggested the school is justifying its “discriminatory” policy by directly linking dress codes to academic performance. He references the school’s handbook, which reportedly states, “Because there is a definite relationship between appropriate dress, good work habits, and proper school behavior, SFSD Athletics has developed this practice. The overall goal of the dress code is to not disrupt the educational environment.”

A high school cross-country runner wants to update his school’s dress code. (Photo: Getty Images)
A high school cross-country runner wants to update his school’s dress code. (Photo: Getty Images)

But Howes disputed that.

“By setting this as a reason for why athletes must be wearing shirts during practice, it implies something that just isn’t true,” he told the school board at the meeting.

While school district spokeswoman Carly Uthe responded Tuesday saying that the school is not allowed to disclose how many of its cross-country runners are academic scholars, she disputed the notion that the school only recently started enforcing the rule. Uthe said the policy has always been in place at all three high schools in the district and that nothing about its enforcement has changed.

Of course, it’s hard to ignore the obvious parallels between the dress code stipulation and the rising awareness of sexual harassment in a #MeToo era. According to the Argus Leader, Howes said the policy outlines that one of its objectives is to “decrease the number of harassment issues,” and that it emphasizes the importance of students focusing on their performances without distractions.

“Human bodies aren’t necessarily a distraction,” Howes countered. “And if someone is behaving inappropriately, it’s up to the coach to tell that student to knock it off. I don’t think hiding people under a shirt is necessarily the solution to types of harassment issues.”

The student’s protest may be met with some resistance, but it’s not falling on deaf ears. Board President Kent Alberty said he appreciated the courage Howes demonstrated by coming forward with his concerns on Monday, noting that the board will take them under consideration. Two other board members, Kate Parker and Todd Thoelke, shook the student’s hand after the meeting.

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