“The way that someone dresses should never determine how successful they are or how much respect they deserve,” Elexa Mellein ‘21 boldly states, setting the scene for what was to come in the discussion between students and administration.
Mellein was referring to comments made by Assistant Principal Stephanie Cruz over the intercom, about the importance of dress code at Foothill. During morning announcements on Sept. 24, Cruz reminded students, despite warmer weather, they were still expected to follow the school dress code and she encouraged students to “dress for success.” She ended the announcement by praising the boys of the school, saying they were “doing a great job.”
On Oct. 3, 2019, students in Cherie Eulau’s Ethnic Studies and Social Justice course were able to express their objections to not only the comments made by Cruz but the entire dress code policy. Chairs were arranged in a circle, providing equal opportunity to all those hoping to speak on the matter.
After negative reactions from students about the statements made by Cruz, the administration saw this as an opportunity to have a sit-down discussion about policies with students.
“I think students had concerns about our dress code and I think that it’s always worth considering their perspectives,” stated Assistant Principal Katie Tedford.
Referencing statements made by Cruz, Mellein stated that they made her feel like, “girls were being called out and shamed for dressing the way that they like to and guys were being praised for dressing the way they like to.”
Colton Bigham 20’ hoped that students could get a “better understanding of each other and be able to talk about these controversial topics that are on our campus.” Regarding comments made by Cruz, Bigham said the problem was “calling out girls” for the way they dress.
Following an introduction from Eulau, students started the conversation by making sure that the administration knew their purpose.
“We just want to let you know we aren’t attacking you in any way, we just want our voices to be heard,” clearly stated one student.
Esmeralda Saucedo ‘20 kickstarted the discussion by acknowledging the problems students had with the announcement made by Cruz. “We wanted to acknowledge that the announcement was directly targeted to girls [it] seemed [intentional].” She felt that the comments made about guys doing great, “kind of made it worse.”
In addition to being harmful to girls, Saucedo also believed the comments were “a slap in the face for [the boys] too because you were basically saying they can’t control themselves at the sight of a shoulder or midriff.”
Jimena Perez ‘20 echoed this same idea, saying “[It’s about] equity because there are different parts of skin that each gender will choose to show. [The] dress code is definitely not fair.”
“We were talking about maybe [changing] the dress code to some extent [because] every year the topic of dress code comes up again and again,” Jimena Perez suggested.
Principal Joe Bova quickly assured students that Tedford and Cruz were in the process of reviewing and revising the school dress code. He also added that he was glad to have this discussion, acknowledging that good conversations can come out of conflicts.
“The dress code was ultimately written 30 years ago [and] so based off some of the concerns that happened a few weeks ago [Mrs. Tedford] met with a lot of students, even the boys as well that did the demonstration last week and it was really a good thoughtful conversation,” said Bova.
He then pointed out that the administration had met with the Associated Student Body (ASB) multiple times “talking about the dress code and how it should be gender-neutral in terms of how it’s administered.”
However, according to Bova, there are some set rules in board policy and “we really can’t change these things” but “we are working with [ASB] to rewrite the dress code and take it to the board.”
Tedford then began to explain how in her meeting with ASB, students discussed how to make the dress code more gender-neutral.
“For example, the word bra, [or tube top,] tend to have female affiliations and so I looked at how can we write a dress code that doesn’t apply to one gender or another,” said Tedford. She then pointed out how these terms aren’t necessary and many gender-neutral words can be used instead, while still enforcing the same rules.
Tedford also wants to work with a dress code that “doesn’t discriminate.” Using the example of her height, she showed how certain dress code rules can be harder or easier to follow based on your body size and type. “[The dress code] shouldn’t be different because of your body,” Tedford stated.
Amanda Perez ‘20 then raised the question of shoulders and tank tops, to which Bova replied that shoulders and thin straps were fine but sometimes wearing those clothing items “show your bra strap.”
Murmurs broke out across the room as one student softly said, “We can’t not wear bras at the same time.”
Tedford added, “People who wear bras, whoever they are, [for] them it is not uncommon for the strap portion of the bra to be visible, that is not uncommon and it’s not super problematic. When we looked at how can we tweak [the dress code] we talked about covering private parts.”
Tedford then raised the question of tube tops and whether they should be covered by the dress code. She defined a tube top as a top that “is in the shape of a tube” and “it does not have straps.”
Throughout the dress code, Tedford says they examined it in terms of “does it adequately cover those private parts and will it continue to cover those throughout the day.”
“A tube top by design and by the presence of gravity is challenging to keep in that position.” Tedford elaborated. The administration, while working on the dress code, was proposing that garments “must have straps.”
Many students objected to this idea of a tube top not being able to adequately cover body parts. “It depends on the body type and I’ve seen people wearing tube tops and they’re completely covered,” said Jimena Perez.
Amanda Perez then brought up the point that if it covered private parts, why couldn’t it be worn?
Cruz responded stating, “That makes it subjective and I think when writing [the dress code] especially if you want to take it to the board or to the superintendent we are trying to keep it as objective as possible to where we don’t have to let this subjectivity be involved.”
“When you are talking about a tube top, well yes, based on body type, some may be able to wear it better than others, some may be able to keep it where it does cover where necessary,” elaborated Cruz.
The idea of a tube top and the sexual connotation attached to it soon was questioned as one student stated, “It’s more just this social concept of our bodies being sexualized that’s the problem.”
Another student agreed saying, “There were dress codes in elementary school” and “[we are] taught from such a young age [and] constantly shoved down your throat that you need to cover yourself up and you’re a sexual object.”
“In the case of women and girls, there’s the connotation that our bodies are gonna arouse guys which is the problem with our dress code,” articulated Amanda Perez.
To this Bova responded, “Has somebody said to you in the school system they don’t want you to wear this because it’s sexually suggestive and it distracts people?”
One student objected to this questioning, stating that however it wasn’t directly said, “that’s what it feels like.”
Eulau again brought up the issue of gender neutrality by saying that “you can make it as gender-neutral as you want but still having issue with straps and tube tops; you’re talking about girls.”
“I think their point is that it’s still all gonna be about girls and its still gonna be girls that get dress coded.” Eulau elaborated. She also objected to the comment made by Cruz that “some people wear it better.”
“That’s the kind of thing that bothers the kids. When you say that some of the kids wear it better, that’s the whole part of the problem.” Eulau continued.
After these comments, students began to question the fairness of the dress code and whether it discriminates based off size, “I know there have been a lot of problems at this school with girls who are more curvy and like thicker that are getting dress coded more often than girls that have a slimmer build. I think that is totally not acceptable because that is something you definitely can’t control.” said one student.
Bova responded saying, “I just want to make sure we are talking in what’s accurate. [We] don’t dress code many people” and “this year we’ve been looser than we’ve ever been.”
“We don’t enforce the dress code with different body types differently,” elaborated Bova.
This was not the perception of the students, objections broke out as Eulau stated, “so it’s not intentional but it’s happening.”
Tedford asked the other officials how many students they had dress coded and continued with, “this year I have spoken to one student. One.” Based on how many were spoken to by Cruz, only two students have been dress coded this year.
Jimena Perez continued to question comments made by Cruz “if it’s not an issue why make [the announcement] so discriminatory?”
Cruz responded, “it’s not that its not an issue we just haven’t had time.”
Tedford then explained how there is “a spectrum on dress code” and there are different stages of infractions. Comparing breaking the dress code to speeding on the highway, she said, “we have talked to the 20 mile and overs” but she acknowledged that there are still the smaller infractions that are worth addressing indirectly through announcements and reminders.
“By the comments made in the announcement it did make it seem like it was only girls. And by praising the boys you are connotating that girls are wrong by the way they dress,” objected Jimena Perez once more.
Garret Block ‘21 disagreed, “what she was essentially saying was this could be an issue at this time because of the weather so just so you know [don’t] overdo it.”
Cruz later defended praising the boys. “In true teacher fashion, you want to praise those that are doing the right thing and doing good.”
Audrey Feist 20’ disagreed, “[the] language used made it feel like you were shaming girls.” She continued, “I understand that that wasn’t your intention but it definitely came off that way and it was shocking.”
Regarding “dress for success” comments, Cruz defended her words, saying that they were apart of the podsentations, so she thought it was appropriate to use in order to connect with what freshmen had heard weeks prior. She says that they will revise that phrase and plans to no longer use it in curriculums and while speaking to students.
Bova then added that the term “dress for success” is “used across the nation by schools for dress code. It is supposed to be a benign way to say [these things].” He doesn’t particularly like using that phrase but wants to acknowledge that it is a “national term.”
Amanda Perez then shifted focus back to how the administration planned on changing the dress code, “Is there a way we are going to maybe do some type of poll or form where we can bring it to the whole school where they can vote on what type of things we want to make sure we address?”
Bova responded saying they “certainly could reach out and get input from the greater student body.” Despite this Bova pointed out that although the students may want to change something it could be unreasonable, due to restrictions and the board policy.
Mellein then pointed out that the day after the announcements, when boys protested the dress code by wearing stereotypically female clothing, “no one dress coded them.”
One student then interjected saying, “one did get dress coded.”
Tedford then elaborated on the aftermath of the student protest saying, “We are very sensitive and aware of people’s right to respond to things. I had a group of students who came and spoke to me at lunch that day [and] students came to me and said ‘I am offended for several reasons.’” She continued, “[Some girls] felt mocked by [the demonstrations].”
She invited the boys that participated to talk to her about their concerns and reasons for protesting. Tedford also met with them to discuss how their actions affected other students, despite their intentions. She continued that she was saddened that people were hurt by any announcements made or the aftermath of those announcements.
As a final question in the discussion, one student asked for ways we can change the dress code without “taking it to the board.”
To this Bova responded, “in the way we enforce it.” He continued that if the dress code was enforced by the standards of the board guidelines, “a lot of people would be dress coded.”
Regarding tube tops, Eulau once again questioned the need for rules against garments such as those that show your midriff. “When you dress code a student, for that kind of violation, you are shaming them, so how do you get around this ideal that they could feel as though you shamed them for showing a body part that they are comfortable showing?”
Students and administration disagreed on the necessity of the midriff in the dress code. Some believed for men, a torso is sexual, therefore in order to be gender-neutral, it must be apart of the regulations. However, others felt that the choices in stores encourage teen girls to wear midriff-baring clothing.
“My outfit is such a big source of confidence,” pointed out one student. When you are dress coded you feel that “what you’re wearing is not ok.”
“So I guess that’s the question for admin is,” articulated Eulau, “how do you enforce the dress code without making students feel the way Elexa has been made to feel?”
“Whatever the dress code is we need to clearly communicate what it is,” responded Tedford. “So my hope is that we can communicate the dress code in a manner that is clear enough so that a student doesn’t come to school and be told ‘hey that’s not the dress code,’” she continued.
One student then shed light on a specific section of the dress code, saying that, “On number three it also talks about head coverings and scarves in the classroom and I think that’s also going to affect those that wear that as a form of their culture or their religion.”
Tedford responded to this concern saying, “religious head coverings are protected by lots of federal [laws].” She acknowledges that this was not up to date on policy and agrees “that’s one that needs to be changed.”
However, this regulation also covers hats and beanies which Bova believes is one rule that “would be hard to get pass the board.”
As the discussion came to a close Bigham was appreciative of the chance to communicate with administrators, “I think sitting down as a whole and talking like this went amazingly.” Bigham continued, “we were able to go through a lot of things and talk about a lot of things that are controversial.”
With regard to his beliefs about the dress code, Bigham articulated that the rules are important but, “you can’t take away too much freedom from students. I feel like taking that away will make them feel as if they don’t [have a voice] on campus.”
Cruz saw this sit-down discussion as an opportunity to “hear what the students had to say. They are the voice of Foothill so we wanted to be able to hear their perspective.”
Cruz elaborated that she wants “a dress code that is more equitable for all students and that is appropriate and meets the needs of our Foothill students.” She wants to continue to discuss more ways to enforce it equitably.
Tedford states that the goal of a dress code and the enforcement is to, “help our students be safe and learn. Our goal is definitely not to micromanage and micro-evaluate” everything that students choose to wear.
Eulau wants to make sure that the dress code is enforced, “equally, because I don’t think [it is]. I think not only does Foothills dress code need to be addressed but then we need to look at the board policy as well.”
Saucedo believed that the discussion was valuable, “in a sense that we were heard.” However, she felt that the administrators, “heard [them] but didn’t really listen to [them].”
“They kept fighting our views for how we interpret the dress code, with ways they interpret it,” elaborated Saucedo. However, she believed that the “main focus was that we got our concerns addressed [and] we were heard.” Despite this Saucedo felt, “it didn’t go anywhere.”
Editor’s Note: Amanda Perez and Jimena Perez were not involved with the reporting for or production of this article.