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It is okay for girls to wear yoga pants, skinny jeans and leggings (with a finger-tip length top) to Haven Middle School. At a meeting of the Haven principal’s advisory committee on March 25, Haven Principal Kathy Roberson read parents the dress code, showed a statement from Haven teachers in support of the dress code and asked for their help by informing their children of the dress code and alerting her to possible incidents of “inconsistent enforcement” of the code.

Despite an Internet feeding frenzy that reached all the way to Australia – much of it based on misinformation about Haven’s dress code – the tone of the meeting in the Haven library was civil and serious but collegial.

Whether the misinformation came from homeroom teachers, who communicated elements of the dress code orally to students the week of March 11or from the students themselves, the night’s agenda was to put that misinformation to rest and to unify the school behind a reasonable and respectful manner of dress for both boys and girls – one that would help foster a climate of learning.

“The whole purpose of middle school is learning good judgment and then you go into high school prepared.”

 “The topic of [the] dress code: while it has been difficult, [has produced] conversations,” Ms. Roberson said. “… [A] lot of students emailed me. I asked, ‘Would you like to talk?’ We have such thoughtful young people. I was really impressed by the conversations.”

Two Views of Communication

A flashpoint was the accusation that the attire of some girls was “distracting” to boys.

Ms. Roberson said faculty and administrators had been having conversations about the dress code for “a few weeks” before the communication with students, and they chose the week after the ISAT tests were administered for that communication. Before that, she said, there had been alerts around the school that conversations about the dress code were coming.

“Periodically we have to re-teach things,” Ms. Roberson said. “We were being inconsistent and we need to be consistent,” she added.

The week of March 11, all kids were to have a discussion in homeroom about the dress code for boys and girls. The dress code states in part, “At Haven, dress and appearance are important components of an overall positive learning environment.”

The guidelines:

• prohibit certain words, advertisement or designs – such as for drugs or weapons – on clothing;

• prohibit the wearing of gloves, scarves or other outerwear in the building, except for medical or religious purposes;

• regulate sleeveless shirts and mandate that if girls wear leggings, they must wear a “fingertip-length” top;

• mandate that pants and shorts be worn at the waistline.

The following day, as Haven administrators discussed what was said and how to treat yoga pants, which did not appear in the code, some parents were already taking action, or preparing to, in light of what they had heard from their children.

Juliet Bond, parent of a Haven student, said her daughter and “several other kids” heard their homeroom teacher use the word “distracting” – that the girls’ clothing was distracting to boys.

“There was [that] week a consistent message coming from the kids. [They were told] ‘You should not be wearing this,’” Ms. Bond said. “The kids were all hearing it [and] were in agreement that they heard that message.”

Gabrielle Berger, another parent, added, “We all thought the kids couldn’t wear yoga pants and skinny jeans. There was some major miscommunication that needs to be clarified.”

Ms. Roberson said the notion that what girls wear is a distraction to boys has never been at the core of any dress code. “We have said, ‘If there’s a teacher who said that, we want to know,” she said.

Ms. Roberson said the code is not aimed only at girls’ dress. “We let the boys know that we don’t want to see their boxers,” she said.

“If we’re not being consistent [in enforcing the dress code,] we’re shaming the [so-called violators],” Ms. Roberson said.

One parent had come to the meeting with a shopping bag filled with clothes her daughter – a straight-A sixth-grade student – had recently been “dress-coded” for wearing. She said her daughter felt like she did not know what to wear on any given day.

Other parents said they had heard children say their wardrobe choice depended on what teacher they would have on a certain day.

Ms. Roberson said the school would continue to aim at consistent enforcement.

Dress Code Considerations

Ms. Roberson acknowledged repeatedly at the March 25 meeting that Haven faculty and administrators had been “inconsistent” in enforcing the dress code.  The inconsistency reached to certain types of clothing and, inevitably, to body types. Girls whose bodies are changing or who are overweight may fill out their clothing differently, making pants, for example look tighter, and therefore, like leggings that require a top.  

Most if not all those who attended the March 25 meeting appeared to agree that a dress code is necessary and that a new one, consistent across the District, desirable.

Lynn Chehab, M.D., who works at the health clinic at Evanston Township High School said, “I do think there’s something to be said to having a dress code – having some idea of what’s appropriate. One of the things that’s nice about having a dress code is that some kids don’t know what to wear. They don’t know what to wear for job interviews. It’s about respecting their teachers.”

Haven teacher Dan Engh said the dress code helps outline the learning climate Haven is trying to create. He said parents who send their children to school in clothing that pushes the edge of the dress code are “setting the kids up.”

Parent Kevin Bond, taking a different note, said, “The policy needs to be gender-neutral:  no visible underwear, for example.”

Parent Elizabeth Hubbard said, “The whole purpose of middle school is learning good judgment and then you go into high school prepared. … A dress code can show kids how to present themselves. At this level, we can help.”

Teacher Elizabeth Jackson said, “The issue is ‘How can we [craft] a dress code to be consistent and not have to rewrite it with fashion changes?’”

District Board 65 member Claudia Garrison, who attended the meeting, said the Board is “exploring all options.”

Support for Haven

By the end of the meeting, most of the parents appeared to be in synch with the school and its intentions and supportive of the principal.

“Haven is a wonderful place,” Ms. Garrison said. That’s what endures. The greatness of the school endures,” she added.

In response to Ms. Roberson’s request for grant-writing help, Ms. Bond said she would help write a grant for the school – due next month – on social/emotional learning.

 “Kathy is awesome,” said Ms. Berger, a parent and a member of the advisory committee. “The Advisory Committee meets every month. That’s a testament to the school.”

Ms. Bond said she appreciates “Ms. Roberson’s willingness to talk. She is more than willing to facilitate a conversation.”

Ms. Hubbard, the parent of a boy and a girl at Haven said “I thought the meeting was great. A lot of parents of kids of different ages, I think the parents do support the principal. I think we feel Haven is a good place.”

Going forward

Until a new policy is formed, Haven will try to be consistent in enforcing its present dress code, Ms. Roberson said. “We are trying to make it simple. If teachers aren’t sure, they should send [the student] to us and let us have that conversation with the child. Basically everyone wants to [comply] with dress code and everyone wants to look good. The goal wasn’t necessarily to let the policy scare anybody but let them know this is a learning environment.” She added that she will continue to encourage students to talk with her if they feel the enforcement has been unfair or selective.

“We don’t want the kids anxious about this. It’s not about kids having anxiety, it’s about being consistent. … It’s about educating the whole child. It’s tough to be in middle school. … [One question is] ‘How do we figure out how to support these kids?’” she said. A suggestion from the girls was to have separate conversations about the dress code with boys and girls, Ms. Roberson said. She also promised the parents “ongoing staff communication.”

“Kathy’s right about consistency,” said Ms. Garrison. “The dress code should bubble up from the buildings.” She encouraged parents to attend the meeting of the District’s Policy Committee on April 1.

“I think we all really want the same thing: to grow strong children who are going to go out and rule the universe,” Ms. Roberson said.

A meeting of the District’s Policy Committee is scheduled for 6 p.m. on April 1 (no fooling) at the Hill Education Center, 1500 McDaniel Ave. Ms. Roberson encouraged parents to attend the meeting.

Statement from District 65 on Dress Code

Evanston/Skokie School District 65 supports student expression through appearance and attire; however, clothing must be appropriate for school and adhere to the guidelines set forth in the Parent/Student Handbook. These guidelines state that student appearance, including dress and grooming, must not disrupt the educational process, interfere with maintaining a positive teaching/learning climate, or compromise reasonable standards for health, safety, and decency.

Concerns over the dress code and the impact it has on body image and societal views of boys and girls have been raised by several parents. The school administration is sensitive to these concerns. The enforcement of the dress code is not in response to the perceived distraction certain clothing may or may not cause and is not a mechanism in which to place blame. The school dress code is enforced in an effort to maintain a respectful learning environment for all. In response to these concerns, Principal Roberson has met with Haven parents and staff to review resources and discuss opportunities to build student and staff awareness and understanding around these important topics.

The District 65 Board of Education and administration recognize the need to have meaningful dialogue surrounding student dress code and in developing and implementing a clear set of guidelines as well as standardized enforcement procedures across district schools. Student Dress Code will be discussed at the next Policy Meeting of the Board of Education at 6 p.m. on April 1 at the Hill Education Center, 1500 McDaniel Ave.

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...