When Molly Neuner got dressed Wednesday, the King Middle School sixth-grader decided to put on a tank top – and a message.
The tank top was a deliberate violation of the school’s dress code, and the message – written in inch-high letters down her arm – was #iamnotadistraction.
Her actions were a response to being reprimanded by a teacher in front of other students this week for wearing a racerback-style purple tank top, breaking a dress code that Molly thinks is sexist, applied unfairly to girls, and silly given how common tank tops are among adults and children.
On Wednesday, Principal Caitlin LeClair met with Molly’s parents and announced that the school will review the dress code at the end of the school year with an eye to considering students’ objections.
“We plan to take this feedback and use it as an opportunity to have some students’ and parents’ input,” LeClair said. The current policy will remain in place for the rest of the year.
Molly, who will be part of the review panel, came home Wednesday with a bounce in her step, peeling off her jacket in the rainy weather to reveal her hashtag message. About 20 other girls in her class also deliberately broke the dress code in solidarity.
“It was so cool to see everyone doing it,” Molly said.
As for the review, “I’m happy they’re going to look at it, but I want to make sure they really do it,” she said.
Portland’s districtwide dress policy says schools can prohibit clothes that cause a “material and substantial disruption” of the school, but Superintendent Xavier Botana said Wednesday he thinks the district needs to define that phrase.
“I don’t believe we should be dictating fashion or measuring the length of shorts if it’s not a material and substantial distraction,” he said. When asked about tank tops, he said: “I would be hard-pressed to understand how the size of a strap makes a substantial and material disruption.”
Molly’s efforts come amid a nationwide pushback by girls and their supporters who say school dress codes that focus on bare shoulders and knee-length shorts are sexist and unfairly used more often against girls than boys. The #iamnotadistraction hashtag has taken on a life of its own, and a Kentucky high school student’s 2015 documentary on YouTube about her school’s dress code, called “Shame: A documentary on School Dress Code,” has been watched 419,263 times.
School officials in many states often struggle with having a reasonable dress code and applying it fairly.
Last year, a similar protest by a Bangor High School student, who said the dress code prohibiting crop tops was sexist because only girls got in trouble for it, received national attention, including a writeup in Seventeen magazine.
In Portland, Oregon, a months-long review last year led to the end of a policy that spelled out lengths and widths of clothing and used terms such as “disruptive,” replacing it with a policy that essentially requires closed-toe shoes and clothing that doesn’t show underwear.
Even the ACLU, which has fought dress code legal battles going back to the 1960s, has weighed in.
“Even when dress codes seem gender-neutral, they are frequently used to police girls’ bodies – sending the message that girls are a ‘distraction’ to boys or men,” Galen Sherwin of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project wrote in an April 6 blog post. “They are often disparately enforced against girls, students of color, LGBT students, or students of different sizes. And enforcement means students may be sent home from school or forced to ‘cover up’ – in other words, excluded, shamed and victim-blamed.”
IMPRECISE LANGUAGE INVITES SUBJECTIVITY
Molly said her problem started Monday, during in-class snack time. In front of other students, a teacher asked Molly and another girl to stand up and measure their clothes. Molly was told to lay her fingers across her shirt strap to make sure it was at least two fingers wide, and the other girl had to put her arms straight down to gauge whether her shorts were above her fingertip length.
“She made us feel really uncomfortable,” Molly said. “It was really uncomfortable and weird.”
The girls were told the outfits weren’t allowed under the dress code. Later the same day, on the playground, the same teacher told Molly to cover up with a sweatshirt, Molly said. When she said she didn’t have one, the teacher gave her a warning and said if she was out of dress code again, she would receive a one-hour detention after school.
The King Middle School dress code doesn’t spell out the two-fingers-wide rule, but it does forbid “short or tight-fitting skirts or shorts (no shorter than finger-tip length), thin-strapped, revealing tops (like tube tops, halter tops or low-cut tops) on girls and tank tops on boys.”
Critics say using language like “tight-fitting” and “revealing” in dress code language is problematic because it’s subjective and forces a teacher to make a judgment call.
“Dress codes have an inherent problem: They are aesthetic judgments,” said Jo Paoletti, an associate professor at the University of Maryland who studies gender and expression through clothing. “You’d think at this point that they’d think this through and ask, ‘Is this something we can enforce consistently?’ And if the answer is no, don’t have the policy.”
Christina Neuner, Molly’s mother, said she wants the dress code changed because the policy unnecessarily sexualizes children and sends a message that their bodies are shameful. It also presumes boys are incapable of controlling themselves based on how someone else is dressed, she said.
“It’s so crazy,” said Neuner, a health coach. “Is it 1960? What is going on? What does the strap have anything to do with her education?”
Neuner said the policy doesn’t appear to be consistently applied, based on what she sees other children wearing at school. Molly said she’s heard of one other student getting a warning – a student on the track team wearing running shorts – but no one ever getting detention. Neuner said the worst part was her daughter being made to feel ashamed in front of her classmates, and other students gave her a hard time about it.
“I was just so floored,” she said. Her husband, Paul, a product portfolio manager at WEX, agreed.
LeClair said the school would handle any future dress code violation cases “in a private and respectful way.”
RESPECT, HUMOR CAN SKIRT TROUBLE
Maine has no statewide dress code, and different schools navigate the contentious waters in different ways.
In Cape Elizabeth, the school board approved a policy years ago that is intentionally short on specifics, but conveys the intent: “The board recognizes that responsibility for the dress and appearance of students rests with individual students and their parent(s)/guardian(s). The board will not interfere with this right unless the personal choices of students create a disruptive influence on the school program or affect the health or safety of others. Students are encouraged to use sound judgment and reflect respect for themselves and others in dress and grooming.”
It’s worked pretty well, said Cape Superintendent Howard Coulter, who can’t recall a dress code issue coming up in recent years.
“We are trusting our students and their parents or guardians to make good choices,” Coulter said. For young people, “part of their development is their expression of what to wear.” “Students appreciate the flexibility (of the policy) and they live up to it,” he said. “We aren’t going back to the days where they would actually measure clothing: how long a dress had to be or shorts. No, thank you.”
At Poland Regional High School, the principal takes a humorous approach with a PowerPoint presentation at the beginning of the school year that uses over-the-top pictures and comics to explain a fairly standard dress code that prohibits spaghetti straps and clothing shorter than fingertip length – similar to prohibitions at King and elsewhere.
“I did it the first time in 2011, and the kids went crazy. … It brought the house down,” said Principal Cari Medd. “I picked random pictures off the internet. One was a plumber and they were filling his plumber’s crack, and we said if you can put something in it, you have to cover it up. It helps (later) when I see a student and I can say, ‘Dude! I think you can put something in that!’ It just sort of softens the hard line.
“I also emphasize underwear is a compound word. Unnnnder and weaaarrrrr,” she said, drawing out the words. “It’s your UNDER-wear … it’s supposed to be UNDER your WEAR.” Medd says that makes it easier to approach a student later in the year and say, “Hey, isn’t that supposed to be under your wear?” usually prompting a grin from the student, not shame.
She adopted the humorous approach after “one or two really negative interactions where we were trying to not make it a big deal and it turned into a big deal,” Medd said. “The joking made us all find a way to kind of just lighten it up.”
‘DRESS CODES TEND TO BE REACTIONARY’
In the Portland School District, policies vary widely. At Portland High School, any kind of “sleeveless shirt” is prohibited. At Lincoln Middle School, the policy prohibits “see-through, backless or bare-midriff tops; shirts with spaghetti straps, one shoulder tops, or strapless tops; or revealing apparel, such as low-cut tops. At Lyman Moore Middle School, the dress code specifies that shoulder straps cannot be less than 2 inches wide.
At Casco Bay High School, “student dress should allow for students to express their views,” but prohibits “clothes that are too revealing. … Shorts must extend beyond one’s fists when arms are held at side; skirts must be mid-thigh.” Hats are allowed at Casco, but not at Lincoln Middle School.
“Dress codes have been a problem for at least the last 50 years,” said Paoletti, the University of Maryland professor. In previous decades, it was battles over girls wearing pants or boys with long hair. Now it’s about shorts and tank tops.
Athletic gear is now round-the-clock wear for many, and Paoletti said many professional women wear tops with narrow straps.
“The problem is, dress codes tend to be reactionary,” she said. “They are reacting to fashion and fashion changes.”
Correction: This story was updated at 9:42 a.m. April 13, 2017 to clarify the dress code at Lincoln Middle School.
Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at: