Addressing the Dress Code

A day of student protest initiates a larger conversation of standards and free speech.


Ella Boyt

Sophomore football players wearing cropped shirts on the day of the protest.

Anna Spell and Camille Manary

On August 31st, 2017, Hickman students organized Crop Top Day in protest to the dress code, specifically the inconsistencies and the over-sexualization some students felt it represented. Only one student, the leader of the protest, was sent home that day after refusing to cover up.

Senior Catherine Saidi organized and led the school-wide protest. Saidi explained her motivation behind the idea.

“My friend had been getting dress-coded for wearing a crop top, and it seemed to be happening out of the blue,” Saidi said. “She felt very upset about the matter, and when I saw that, I realized that I didn’t want anyone else at Hickman to feel like that, so I decided to take action.”

While only one student was sent home, others were asked to cover up, and if they continued to refuse, were sent to the office.

“We tried to have a one-on-one conversation with the student,” Gragnani said. “We tried as best as possible not to make it a public thing. Now, given that we had multiple students that were participating, it was difficult to have the one-on-one conversation we normally have with them.”

Male students also joined in on the protest, including members of the football team, who were told beforehand that they would lose their playing rights in the next football game if they participated.

Sophomore Isaac Young was one of the football players who chose to participate despite the consequences.

“People in this school that I value feel strongly about the situation so I supported them in their efforts to protest the newly enforced policy,” Young said.

Saidi felt that the crop top ban highlighted a gender bias, pointing to a larger problem in the education system.

“I think that over-sexualization of specific articles of clothing has been a weakness in American schools for many decades,” Saidi said. “It often makes women (and people who pass as women) feel targeted and ashamed of their bodies. I don’t think that a school environment should be allowed to let this kind of discomfort foster in students.”

Frank Lomonte, former president of the Student Press Law Center, explained the protections given to students under the First Amendment, and how far they go in regards to student expression and protest.

It’s only when a student’s expression becomes “substantially disruptive” that it loses its First Amendment protection,” Lomonte said. “So the first question to ask with any dress code is whether the dress code is aimed at expression, as opposed to being aimed at neat and professional dress regardless of its message. If the dress code restricts expression, then a public school school will have to show that it is necessary to prevent a “substantial disruption” to override the students’ First Amendment right to express themselves.”

Lomonte points out that student opposition to the dress code can only go so far in what rules it breaks.

“If the student’s outfit does communicate a message, then it has some degree of First Amendment protection,” Lomonte said. “However, that still doesn’t mean the speaker has an absolute right to defy a dress code. If the dress code says “no T-shirts,” then I can’t insist on wearing a campaign T-shirt just because it is political, unless I can show that the reason for the T-shirt ban was to prevent political speech.”

In the 2017-18 student handbook, crop tops are considered a violation of the dress code, as “excessively tight or revealing clothes that overexpose the body.”

Gragnani explained that the crop tops were not inappropriate because they were distracting to others, but because they didn’t fit with typical expectations of dress.

“Doesn’t fit with the standard of dress we expect from our students in a learning environment, whether that’s a shirt that overly exposes the stomach, pants that overly expose, or undergarments, or anything else like that,” Gragnani said.

Gragnani wants to put students in a learning environment that better prepares them for a lifestyle after graduation.

“I feel like if we do not prepare our students for the world that they’ll be graduating into or that they’re currently living in, then we’re doing them a disservice,” Gragnani said.

Parent of a sophomore and graduated Kewpie, Karlan Seville, believes Hickman administration should not be removing students from class, depending on what they are wearing.

“I would find it much more distracting to interrupt class and much more damaging to call someone out in front of their peers for their freedom to choose their attire than just not calling attention to it and teaching,” Seville said.  

Amy Pescaglia, parent of two Hickman students, emphasized the importance of understanding how everyone has a different interpretation of what is appropriate.

“What makes an article of clothing distracting is different for every person,” Pescaglia said. “Generally I think women are more susceptible to fashion judgement because women are more fashionable than men. We have a larger variety of clothes to choose from and a willingness to use fashion as art. If the school asks for a person not to wear a bare midriff or a male not to wear running tights without shorts, those are not unreasonable requests.”

Gragnani expressed similar thoughts, attributing the past inconsistencies in the enforcement of the dress code to the various interpretations of the handbook wording, and the subjectivity of the issue.

“The only thing I can do is have conversations with our teachers about what we expect from our students,” Gragnani said. “And then also to make them aware of their own biases, which may be influencing what they determine to be overexposing or not.”

Besides subjectivities, Gragnani explained that the dress code had never been one of the administration’s main focuses to implement.

“The dress code has been enforced in the past, but at the same time it’s also not priority number one for us,” Gragnani said.

CPS allows schools to implement their own policies separately. And while not the top priority, Pescaglia believes the school still has the right to set and uphold a dress code.

“I do believe the school has the responsibility to set boundaries,” Pescaglia said. “I also feel the school is culturally sensitive and doesn’t wish anyone to conform to another person’s style choice.”

In setting boundaries, though, there are many different aspects to consider.

The wording of the dress code matters a lot, but so does the intent behind it and the way it is enforced,” Lomonte said. “So you have to look at everything: What the rule says, what prompted it, and how it is applied.”

Gragnani is currently looking at working with students to reword parts of the dress code.

“I’m willing to work with students to address those issues, but at the same time, I don’t want to create a policy that, while the intent is to be more fair and balanced, it ends up becoming more degrading and more obstructive to the students’ learning,” Gragnani said.

Gragnani discussed the difficulties that come with changing the dress code.

“I also don’t want to say, “okay hey, is your tank top three fingers width?” or “hey, let me measure your midriff.” I think, to me, that’s as equal, if not more degrading,” Gragnani said.

Saidi and Gragnani will be working together to revise the dress code, with Saidi’s hopes that “every student feels like they can freely express themselves and be respected for whatever and however they decide to dress.”