Calgary mom slams CBE dress codes as ‘tools to shame and control students’

A Calgary mom is calling out the Calgary Board of Education for what she calls problematic and discriminatory dress codes at public schools. 

Dr. Doreen Rabi is the mother of an Ernest Manning High School student. As a part of routine communications from the school, Rabi read the school’s dress code earlier this week, and became very concerned. 

The dress code — which is almost identical to other dress codes from CBE high schools throughout the city — told students to dress modestly, in clean clothes that are in good repair, and that don’t draw attention to the student or distract others.

“The thing that really struck me is, is that the wording and the elements of the dress code — I really was concerned that these would be weaponized against children that are already vulnerable based on their gender or their socioeconomic status or their race,” she said.

“And at the end of the day, I think there’s no real educational need to dress a specific way at school.”

Grade 10 Ernest Manning student Brooke Miller said she feels the dress code, particularly when it mentions modesty, is disproportionately geared toward female students.

“Most of the time when people are talking about dress codes, it’s directed toward how girls are dressed — most of the time, not all the time. But say some guy showed up in a muscle shirt, nobody cares,” she said.

“But if a girl shows up in a shorter skirt, a teacher will say,’you’re distracting the students,’ or mainly, ‘you’re distracting the boys’ learning.'”

Rabi agrees. 

“The one about modesty was clearly targeting female students, and I think that there’s no reason for women to feel physical shame because they were in school,” she said.

“I think that if the rationale is that they’re distracting in those clothes, that’s that’s a projection onto the girls. That’s not the girls doing anything wrong in themselves. And I really, really worry about the school or teachers making girls feel badly about being female and basically objectifying the girls because of of of what they’re wearing. So I felt that shaming girls for being girls is just fundamentally wrong.

Grade 10 student Brooke Miller said she feels the dress codes tend to target female students more often than male students. (Lucie Edwardson/CBC News)

Miller said she also feels that specifically mentioning the cleanliness or state of repair of a students clothing is problematic. 

“I once had this favourite pair of shoes that ripped at school and my gym teacher [not at Ernest Manning] called me poor because of it,” she said.  “Ripped clothing shouldn’t be an issue because some people can’t even afford to get [new clothing] or their clothing fixed.”

Grade 11 student Antonios Tinios said he doesn’t think schools should have a say in what students wear. 

“I don’t really agree with that. I feel like students should be free and feel safe to wear whatever they want,” he said.

“I think it kind of impedes people from expressing themselves freely and being able to kind of just explore what makes them happy.” 

Rabi said when she brought her concerns to the school principal, she was pleasantly surprised.

“The principal’s office was very open and they agreed that they have concerns as well about how the code might be applied, but it’s clear that they received [direction] through the CBE,” she said.

“I am hoping that we can generate city-wide discussion about the inappropriateness of these sorts of codes in our schools and our publicly funded schools.”

Grade 11 student Antonios Tinios said students should feel free to express who they are through their clothing. (Lucie Edwardson/CBC News)

Rabi said the principal has agreed to work with her, the board and the parents’ association in early October.

In an emailed statement, the CBE said the board does not have a system-wide dress code. However, its administrative regulations outline expectations for school-based student dress codes and their development. 

“We recognize that there is a diversity of opinion in society as to what constitutes suitable dress for school activities. In addition, standards of dress may differ somewhat among schools, depending on the varying standards of communities,” said chief superintendent Christopher Usih.

“Principals are expected to work with students and parents when developing or adjusting dress code standards, and to be flexible within reason as these standards continue to evolve over time.”

Ultimately, Usih said all students and staff are required to adhere to reasonable standards in dressing and grooming that are appropriate for a learning and working environment and follow safety rules in all activities.

Rabi said from her own school day experiences she knows how it feels to be called out by a teacher for wearing something they find inappropriate. 

“My main concern about this is that when someone points out and says, ‘hey, you can’t wear that’ or ‘you shouldn’t wear that,’ or ‘what were you thinking when you put that on?’ It’s just incredibly humiliating, incredibly diminishing and marginalizing,” she said. 

“I don’t think there’s any evidence that that crop tops or camisoles or baggy jeans or ripped jeans negatively impact the learning environment,” she said. “In the absence of that, then it’s just sort of stating that children can’t wear those things and it’s just a way to kind of rein them in and exert control over them.”

The mother of three said she understands there are some rules in a dress code that are there for student protection, and supports those.

“I do understand that words are powerful and clothing that has phrases or slogans or symbols that are hurtful to others can’t be permitted. I think that the goal of all learning environments is that they should be safe places and places where people can feel free to to grow and discover themselves and be encouraged to do so,” she said.

“These policies and structures are the things that creates inequity along gender lines, income lines or racial lines.”

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