The Story of Our Dress Code

A few years back, the leadership team at LiHigh School, after reading about the Sudbury Valley School, decided to give our students even more control over their education than they already had. We created a School Congress where every student and staff member would have an equal vote and an equal voice. We placed no limits on the power of Congress, and we provided Congress with a significant budget that it could  use to fund student projects, purchase special materials, and pay for field trips.

While many schools have a School Congress or a Student Council, most schools do not give their Congress any teeth. The most important decisions are still made in a backroom filled exclusively with adults, and the system, as a whole, still does not trust the students to control their own education.

That’s not how it works at LiHigh School. It’s true that we have a leadership team made up of only staff members, but any significant decisions made by that team are run through Congress for final approval.

The story of how we came up with our school dress code is a perfect example.

Some of the adults in our school were concerned by what they saw as the provocative style of dress of some of our students, and they asked our leadership team to create a dress code to regulate it. This wasn’t a sign of those adults’ prudery. As a therapeutic school, we regularly service students who have experienced sexual trauma in their past, and provocative clothing has often served as a trigger to that trauma.

The leadership team responded to the request by drawing up a proposal and putting it before the Congress. Without a doubt, this proposal was the most contentious of the year (so far). While many students reacted strongly to the proposal, virtually everyone accepted the reasoning behind it, and in an incredibly mature fashion, took it upon themselves to craft a dress code that everyone in the school could be happy with.

The final version, which came after four weeks of deliberation and debate in Congress, ended up being a product of last quarter’s Activism class, and it includes the following preface:

“The dress code outlined below is proposed by LiHigh’s Activism Course in the hopes of creating a dress code that is sensitive to the students who struggle with issues related to sexual reactivity, but does not discriminate against any student on the basis of gender identity, sexual orientation, sex, race, ethnicity, religion, or any other aspect of an individual’s identity.

“We believe all students should be allowed to dress in a manner that is comfortable to them, conducive to their learning, and in accordance with their gender identity.

“Rules should not reinforce gender stereotypes.

“Dress code infractions should be considered minor, and discipline should not involve removing a child from their learning environment. We would also like to avoid having special dress-code-violation clothes assigned by the school as that may shame a student for the remainder of the day.

“We feel it is important to remember that not all students or their families have the financial means to buy new clothing if a dress code dictates what they wear is not in accordance.”

The rule then goes on to outline the type of clothing that is allowed and the type that is not allowed.

  • Students must wear clothing, including a shirt with pants or skirt (or the equivalent) and shoes
  • Shirts and dresses must have fabric in the front and on the sides
  • Clothing must cover undergarments (waistbands and bra straps excluded)
  • Fabric covering all private parts and chest must not be see through
  • Clothing must be suitable for all scheduled classroom activities, including physical education, science labs, wood shop, and other activities where unique hazards exist
  • Clothing may not depict, advertise, or advocate the use of alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, or other controlled substances
  • Clothing may not depict pornography, nudity, or sexual acts
  • Clothing may not use or depict hate speech targeting groups based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, religious affiliation, or any other protected groups

The proposal put together by the leadership team was voted down by a significant margin, but the proposal put together by the Activism class, which consisted of seven students and two staff members and addressed all of the concerns raised by the members of Congress, was passed by a vote of 22-1.

That’s what it means to be a democratic school. It’s a place where the important decisions are made out in the open with everyone who is affected by the decision having the opportunity to speak their mind and cast their vote.

And it’s the way we do things here at LiHigh School.