At the beginning of every school year, students, faculty and staff must shift from summer activities and attitudes back to the school environment. For some of us, it’s a familiar routine; for others, the high school is a brand-new experience.
Public high schools are interesting places. The years students spend here represent the last time many of them will be immersed in such a large and diverse population on a daily basis. Because of this, it is a golden opportunity for them to learn how to get along with others while defining who they are as individuals. Self-expression, testing boundaries, and adjusting to complex social norms are all part of the education, side-by-side with academic studies.
Many Ukiah High School students reflect the libertarian leanings of our county, where rules are sometimes interpreted as recommendations rather than non-negotiable limitations. As someone who has lived and worked in Mendocino County for nearly 30 years, I embrace this spirit when I can, choosing to enforce hard limitations when I must to keep kids physically and emotionally safe.
Recently, we had some controversy about one of the rules that often evokes high emotion: dress code. Just as our culture has evolved over time, so has our dress code. Issues around self-expression and body image are often reflected in clothing choices. As teens struggle to find themselves and their social group, they experiment with clothing choices. It’s a natural part of growing up.
At the beginning of every year, I remind our students that we have a dress code. I tell them they may choose what they wear off campus—at the beach, camping or going to a backyard bar-b-que at grandma’s house —but at school, we have work to do. We need to respect the learning environment. A copy of the dress code is on our website at ukiahhigh.uusd.net.
While some dress code issues are simple and clear, many are not. The boys and girls on the UHS water polo team wear swimsuits when they compete, and our football players wear padding and helmets, but these athletes do not show up for class in their uniforms. It would be totally inappropriate in most everyone’s eyes. However, if we lined up all the students from most conservative dress to least conservative and asked where the line should be for “school-appropriate dress,” we’d hear a wide range of opinions. These opinions, based on personal values, are often deeply held and we need to be respectful of that. Adding to the complexity is the fact that students in high school are at an age when they are highly distractible; it is up to each individual to learn to manage his or her own distractions. These differences of opinion create controversy.
Communicating with students that may be in violation of the dress code can also create controversy. This is because people view clothing as a form of self-expression. The communication to students needs to be caring and civil. When we fall short of this goal it creates controversy. Sometimes students don’t want to hear what is being said. This too creates controversy. Often the controversy revolves around freedom of expression and the perception of unequal enforcement of the rules. Importantly, these are large themes in the United States Constitution. While we try to avoid controversy through clarity and diplomacy, navigating the dress code in a public school provides one more opportunity for young people to become more skilled as citizens living in a large and diverse nation.
If you are a parent concerned about this issue, please contact me or one of the assistant principals. Be aware that teens haven’t changed since we were kids: what they leave the house in may not be what they show up to school in. Please communicate with us directly. Working together will help us continually improve the dress code and our approach in working with students. It will also provide our children the opportunity to see that cooperation and mutual support are essential in a complex world.