How our School Represses Expression

How our School Represses Expression

By: Kimo Gandall

 ​As the school year begins, we lumber into classrooms, the administration lecturing us on a loathed student issue: The Dress Code.

The school, as they have every year, argues that the Dress Code is necessary to keep order; people get ‘distracted,’ or ‘disruptive.’ Regardless of whether or not this is true (which is inherently disputable), we all know that this rule falls in on itself.

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(Above): Screenshot of the EHS Dress Code

These rules, to be frank, are laughably implemented; I commonly witness students violating these rules, even students involved in the ASB, an organization devoted to supporting Edison “standards.”  More shockingly, I consistently listen to, and am a witness of, lower scoring classmates (those involved usually in lower level classes) being unproportionately disciplined in comparison to higher level AP students. For all of you AP students, I’m sure you can testify to seeing your classmates wearing something that our school deems “inappropriate” for an “educational environment.”

This of course is anecdotal, and is simply based off my carefully made observations; there is almost no way to correlate this pattern off a statistical basis, largely because none of the statistics involving dress code disciplines are open to the public. The closest one could find in therelation to discipline involves suspensions, which undoubtedly have very little correlation to the number of dress code violations.

Regardless of the terrible enforcement of such codes the system insists upon their existence. Why?

The purpose behind the dress code is highly disputed, and there are varying purposes behind it. The United States’ courts typically relate the rationale of “legal discrimination” behind the dress code upon one goal: “The safety of the children.” This statement is very ambiguous; is the “safety of the children” in relation to the “safety” of societal norms? Of education?

The Courts tend to permit articles of clothing that encourage educational discourse. In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the Supreme Court famously ruled that Des Moines violated the 1st amendment rights of their students by denying them the right to wear black armbands in protest of the Vietnam war.

The text below is regarded as one of the biggest precedents for student rights in our history.

… the record does not demonstrate any facts which might reasonably have led school authorities to forecast substantial disruption of or material interference with school activities, and no disturbances or disorders on the school premises in fact occurred. These petitioners merely went about their ordained rounds in school. Their deviation consisted only in wearing on their sleeve a band of black cloth, not more than two inches wide. They wore it to exhibit their disapproval of the Vietnam hostilities and their advocacy of a truce, to make their views known, and, by their example, to influence others to adopt them. They neither interrupted school activities nor sought to intrude in the school affairs or the lives of others. They caused discussion outside of the classrooms, but no interference with work and no disorder. In the circumstances, our Constitution does not permit officials of the State to deny their form of expression.

– Mr. Justice Fortas, delivering the opinion of the Court
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Above: Armband worn by students in protest of the Vietnam War

Photo credits: Huffington Post

The Supreme Court saw the ‘armbands’ the students were wearing as symbols of a political message, and as Justice Fortas recalls, “They neither interrupted school activities nor sought to intrude upon the school affairs or the lives of others.” In essence, so long as these students didn’t prevent other students from working, they were free to do as they pleased. Our constitution protects this right.  Indeed, the context of the case also represented an important factor; remember that Justice Fortas specifically states “In the circumstances…” which implies that the precedent of the right to expression has a narrow implementation. The question then is asked: is the ‘expression of armbands’ linkable to ‘expression of lack of clothing’?

However, our administrators’ agendas have been able to find a way around that. According to Dr.Larry Wilder from Fresno University “The National School Board Association estimates thatapproximately 135,000 guns are brought to America’s 85,000 public schools each day,” and “that educators report a decrease in violence, a reduction of fights in schools and improved studentachievement when dress codes have been implemented.”

Yes, that’s right. These ‘brilliant’ doctors are essentially stating that if we make girls cover-up, gang violence will decrease. In addition to this shaky foundation, most of Dr. Wilder’s studies have a basis of focusing on male violence, such as baggy pants, not violence related to girls. Another problem with this study is that Dr. Wilder’s studies conclude that clothes that hide skin can conceal weapons; but if the problem is with lack of clothing, then there is no to claim that this policy will “protect our students.”

If physical safety is not our school’s concern then what is it? There are two primary arguments in regards to our safety: the official one being the safety of our ‘productivity’ and the unofficial, yet widely held one being the protection of  ‘respect.’

Productivity:

The productivity argument is essentially that wearing less provocative clothing allows students to work without disruption. The basis behind this argument is that the person wearing the provocative clothing is at blame; however, there is a multitude of ways provocative clothing can be portrayed. Usually, ‘provocative’ clothing is when a student wears an image that can be seen as offensive and invoke response. However, the US courts have traditionally upheld the right of the student to portray ‘offensive’ as long as they are political in nature. In Guiles v.Marineau, the Supreme Court upheld that a student wearing a shirt depicting President Bush in relation to drugs was protected under the 1st and 14th amendment. Once again, the Court upheldthe right to statement protected under the 1st amendment. In order for the school to ban theclothes, they must prove that the wearing of such would significantly hamper the ability to teach.

Respect:

Many of our teachers have made the argument that the school ought to implement the dress code as a sign of respect. I have little evidence to demonstrate that this argument is used on a wide scale other than a multitude of statements from neighboring high schools, including Temecula and (most infamously) the Bay Area, especially Pleasanton’s Foothill High School. Many of these arguments range from “immorality” to “distractions” but end up in the same arena: respect.

The purpose of the Dress Code, at least to the school district, is then clear (if not terribly mislead). But it’s not.

The purpose of the dress code is deeper; it surrounds the very establishment in which we exist. ‘Respect,’ ‘productivity,’ ‘safety’; all words to describe a shared power relationship between the teacher and the student. The teacher must retain this power in order to teach; the very concept of teaching a concept must lay upon the fact that one human is more experienced than another. The problem is then that the clothes these girls wear offend the power relationship within the institution; the very notion of portraying one’s body works against the status quo, something that the school system is a member of. Logically, it then makes that attempting to ban such clothing would maintain the status quo and hence protect the basis of the education industry. However, there is a problem to this hunch: the dress code, as I have observed, is rarely enforced upon students from higher level classes. The power relationship theory then seems odd, in this sense.

The answer to the 1st problem is scholarly elitism. Students in higher classes tend to make less trouble; they tend to form clubs, organizations; they tend to only offer more to the institution than they may take away. AP students, namely, are the foster children of scholarly elitism, and the institution has every reason to protect them in that they are the tools to further the local agendas of the districts. Students who participate and make their schools remarkableinevitably attract money; an amazing football player generates more revenue for the ASB off games, an amazing SAT taker earns scholarships and recognition, and a high level of students passing AP tests reflects well upon teachers. The school system then has little to no reason to offend these students, so long as the exposing of their midriffs doesn’t prevent them from profiting the institution. By giving the elite the ability to ‘shove’ off steam that all teenagers inevitably have, they allow them to remain as tools. In converse, the students left in the lower classes (non-AP students). The system has no need for them; they are simply the filler. They are the ones abandoned. While my cynicism may seem unrealistic, look at our entire system for providing Federal funding. Schools are tested on their ability; those with higher scoring students,get more funding. Those who actually need the money to help their lower scoring students get less. The rich become richer, and the poor become poorer. By suppressing the lower class students of the school, our ‘masters’ up in the big red office have everything to gain; less low scoring students, more money. Even further, many of these admins may have even deluded themselves into believing that retributive punishment against the ‘offenders’ of the dress code might make them more ‘productive’ and ‘respectful.’ All of this lays down to one response: the system wants to maintain and grow its power, and the dress code is a useful tool to enforce their power on students who don’t fit in with the standards.

There is one infamous example of the school blatantly repressing the right to free speech. At last year’s Lip Dub a student by the name of Mr. Griffin Hatchell held a sign satirically stating “Bush did 9/11” poster. The school decided that this did not fit with the norm; they took Mr.Hatchell’s sign, and couple days later sentenced Mr. Hatchell to a saturday school. According to Mr. Hatchell “they sat me down and explained that what I did was wrong … the Vice Principal told me that they would either suspend me or at worst expel me for what I did.” Mr. Hatchell’sonly crime was working against the status quo; by providing this piece of satire, Mr. Hatchellwas simply practicing his right to 1st amendment speech. Apparently, constitutional rights aren’t important so long as no one is willing to sue over them!

After reading through my ranting you may now be asking yourself, what is he saying? Indeed, in these short few pages, I have gone over the reasoning of the courts to the agendas of the institution. My purpose, my thesis, my imprint upon you: the dress code, while it may seem deluded and awkward, and even contradictory, is simply another tool used by the system to control you. The dress code is a part of the machine to chug you in, and turn you out. If clothing is a the symbol of liberty and individuality, then by all means, allow us to defy such an unjust law.

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