The One Good Thing About School Dress Codes

Unnecessarily sexed, slut-shaming dress code regulations galvanize a generation of activists like Riley O’Keefe.

Riley O’Keefe, a junior at Bartram Trail. (Courtesy)

It’s not that they reduce sexual harassment and assault against girls and young women. They don’t.

It’s not that they allow teachers and administrators to treat students with respect. They don’t.

School dress codes are agents of slut shame, driven by the belief that girls who don’t cover up are deviant and distracting.

The only exciting benefit is that students are so disgusted and outraged by these sexist and racist regulations that they are galvanized. From Lily Bond, who protested the ban on leggings at her college in Illinois, for Lacey Henry, who called out her North Carolina high school for forcing girls to wear dresses instead of pants at their graduation ceremony, to Jilly Towson, who shared with the Smithsonian National Museum of American History what it’s like to have a dress code and how it interferes with learning, students are creating petitions, raising awareness and getting dress codes changed once and for all .

Florida high school student Riley O’Keefe has been highly critical of her Florida school district’s attitudes towards girls and women, exemplified not only by its gender-biased dress code but also by her school’s manipulation of images from the girls directory by edit their cleavage. The U.S. Department of Education launched an investigation into whether or not the district discriminates against girls, and the ACLU stepped in, largely due to O’Keefe’s activism.

I asked 16-year-old Riley about her experiences at Bartram Trail High School.

Leora Tanenbaum: What prompted you to speak out against sexist dress codes?

Riley O’Keefe: On March 26, 2021, it started as a normal day. But when we got to school, the girls had a dress code left and right. Administrators and teachers stood outside the front door of the ninth grade center, and when the girls tried to enter, they made them raise their arms and take off their jackets to see what they were wearing underneath. Between 30 and 40 girls had a dress code, and not a single boy had a dress code.

Many girls wore tank tops under zip-up jackets or hoodies and teachers told girls to take their jackets off to see what was underneath. A math teacher told a girl to take her jacket off, which she didn’t want to do because she was wearing a sports bra. But he made her take it off and change. And this teacher is still working at the school.

I was frustrated and angry because some of my friends had to leave the class for half a period, missing a ton of learning. And then on the intercom at the end of the day, in the seventh period, the girls had to go back to the reception to retrieve the clothes that had been taken from them, so they missed learning even more. Students who had a dress code were so embarrassed.

I was like, “How are you?” So that night I channeled all that emotion into a Petition that I wrote. And then about 500 people signed it the next day or two, which I didn’t expect. It was amazing. It was like, ‘Wow, maybe we could do something about this.’ And now we have over 7,000 signatures.

A school official digitally noted dozens of girls’ necklines after deeming students’ tops – which consisted mostly of v-neck t-shirts – immodest. (News4JAX — YouTube)

Tanenbaum: How did the other students react?

O’Keefe: A group of students protested wearing certain clothes. Guys came to school in short skirts and wigs as a show of solidarity, because the reason girls had a dress code was because their clothes were supposed to be “entertaining.” So the guys decided to wear distracting clothes to prove a point. One guy was wearing a hot pink wig and a speedo swimsuit over his shorts, and it was really tight, and he had his flannel shirt tied up like a bra. And he didn’t have a dress code. Her teacher even complimented her wig.

But many students were too scared to protest. They were afraid that if they said anything it might be used against them. They couldn’t defend themselves because of the power the school has over their lives.

Between 30 and 40 girls had a dress code, and not a single boy had a dress code. I was like, “How are you?”

Tanenbaum: And then the school doctored the yearbook photos of the girls without their consent.

O’Keefe: The day my school released the yearbooks, I went to get mine. And the first thing people do when they receive their yearbook is flip through the page with their photo. So I find my picture, and I’m like, “That doesn’t look good.” I had the real picture on my phone, so I looked at it, and that’s when I realized the school had put a black box on my chest. And then I flipped through and saw that a lot of pictures of girls also had a black box on their chest. And I was really blown away. There was nothing wrong with my photo. There was nothing wrong with anyone’s photo.

My first reaction was that I was just a little confused. But then I realized that the administration looked at my picture, and what they saw was my chest. It worried me that they basically saw us as distracting bodies.

When they put those black boxes on our chests in the yearbook, it became clear that the dress code wasn’t really an issue with the clothes. It was a problem with how the school district views women’s bodies and how the world views women’s bodies. They sexualized us when we were still children.

Tanenbaum: How did the ACLU get involved?

O’Keefe: I want you to know that before the ACLU came forward, we had gone to the school board to try to get the dress code changed. Someone else had reached out to the US Department of Education and the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, but things hadn’t picked up much steam. Then The New York Times and the washington post reached out to interview me, and that publicity sped it all up.

The ACLU was very concerned about the disproportionate enforcement of the dress code against girls. The parents had reported that their sons and daughters would wear the same clothes to school, such as a tank top or running shorts, but only the girls would have a dress code. The ACLU sent a letter to the St. Johns County School District advising them that they were violating Title IX and the U.S. Constitution. Then, the Ministry of Education officially launched an investigation to determine whether the dress code and its enforcement led to gender discrimination against girls.

After the Department of Education and the ACLU got involved, the board began to listen. They changed parts of the dress code. They removed language specifying some rules for girls and other rules for boys, and removed language prohibiting “immodest, revealing or distracting” clothing. But I want you to know that they never cared until they were threatened and embarrassed by all the negative media coverage. And that even after that, the district did not take the measures that I consider adequate.

For example, the district said it was going to start a group to work together on the dress code review. The group was to be made up of teachers, parents and students. But they never really invited parents and students. Thus, the district never kept its word.

The dress code is a bit better. Now you can wear tank tops and shorts. But that was never the real problem to begin with, so the real problem is unresolved. Teachers were still standing outside the school at the start of the year, examining girls’ clothes and issuing warnings. It intimidated a lot of girls. A local newspaper recently requested data on dress code violations issued since September, and 83 percent are still issued to girls.

Some people, including teachers and administrators, simply view girls’ bodies as threatening. I have never heard anyone tell a boy that his shirt was too tight, his shorts too short, or his muscles were showing. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for girls’ clothes or our bodies. Negative comments are constantly made about girls’ bodies or clothes.

The administration looked at my picture, and what they saw was my chest. It worried me that they basically saw us as distracting bodies. They sexualized us when we were still children.

Tanenbaum: There’s a lot of attention now focused on your school district because of your actions, Riley, which is fantastic. How do you feel about that?

O’Keefe: It’s really important that people know that this fight is not over. Of course, we have corrected the dress code a bit. But the dress code and its enforcement are still not perfect. Girls are still not treated equally. When people act like everything is better now, they are disrespecting all the girls who have been victimized by the district’s actions.

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