SF Dress Code

San Francisco: Student Leadership in The San Francisco School

Identifying Oppression and Gender Bias in a School Dress Code

Learn more about how students at The San Francisco School documented and took action to push back on gendered dress codes in San Francisco, California below!

The Process, Step-by-Step

The process began with a reading of a graphic memoir in an 8th grade humanities class. The work, Liz Prince’s “Tomboy,” raises questions around gender identity and societal expectations and norms. The class engaged in a dialogue that created space for the youth to connect the graphic memoir’s themes to their lived experiences. They then honed in on a shared experience (dress code rules and enforcements) and a shared community (school) to focus on. From this, the students decided that they needed to better understand the language of the dress code, who wrote it, who enforces it, and what the consequences are of breaking it. After a critical group reading of the dress code, students had more questions.

Two eighth grade students decided to develop a survey using SurveyNuts to see what the students and adults in the school community thought of the dress code. One interesting finding was that many adults who responded claimed that boys were being distracted by the ways the girls were dressing while the boys who responded said that they almost never were distracted or affected by their female peers’ choice of dress. After the survey concluded, they synthesized the results, shared them at an all-staff meeting and student council, and met with various heads of the school. The dress code, as it was decided by the students, unfairly targeted young women, had an underlying assumption that how one dresses is the culprit behind unwarranted behavior, and perpetuated the sexualization of young girls and women. They received overwhelming support from their peers, student council, and faculty.

The next round involved soliciting and receiving more feedback, opening themselves up for more questions, and researching other schools’ policies in order to develop a proposal for a more equitable dress guideline. After patiently moving through multiple rounds of meetings, editing, and rewriting, the proposal was finalized and ready for a vote by a school committee. An important piece to note, however, is that the students proclaimed that since the existing dress code directly affects them and was partly developed by a group of former students, they had the authority and power to change it. This was a big leap in the process of decision-making at the school in which adults usually make the decisions. The message that was sent was that students were empowering themselves and stepping out of the system. The San Francisco School saw this as an opportunity to step out of its system to address the raised issues collaboratively with the youth, not against them.

The proposal turned a dress code into a dress guideline in which safety, common sense, and anti-hate speech are addressed. Additionally, the guideline demands that all adults be aware and trained in addressing individual students around the dress guideline without shaming or sexualizing. The proposal passed, but is just the beginning of an ongoing dialogue around gender equity and student voice and activism.

Fun Fact

Ultimately, the process came full circle back to the graphic novel, “Tomboy”: the work that initially opened the class to conversations around bias, gender, and power. Students were asked to create their own graphic memoir that captures a time when they learned something about themselves. One of the students chose the entire process of participatory research action as being pivotal in developing her understanding of what she is capable of and who she wants to become.

Learn More

If you would like to read the final document that students produced regarding the dress code, you may download it here. If you have any questions, you may email Michelle Yi-Martin at  myimartin@sfschool.org.

Pictured above: Isabella Yin and Gaba Hord engage the community on gender bias in the current dress code.