CUSD dress code under scrutiny: Students, parents and staff express varying opinions

Parent Ivette Lee addresses the board on Wednesday, Feb. 10, to speak in favor of the current dress code. (Photo by Valerie Shelton)

An intense debate over the legality and ethics of the Clovis Unified School District’s current dress code was spurred Jan. 27, following a 4-3 decision by the school board rejecting proposed changes to the code. The changes would have allowed boys to wear long hair and earrings and also eliminate language in the code that reads dresses and skirts are to be worn only by girls.

CUSD Communications Director Kelly Avants said the January vote came after a May 2015 annual report to board by members of the Inter School Council and the board’s request to the administration to develop a revised dress code for their consideration. The subsequent revised dress code is what board members turned down Jan. 27.

After the decision, representative of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have come forward accusing the district of disobeying the law in continuing to enforce a code that they feel is discriminatory because it doesn’t allow for gender equity and expression.

At the board’s Feb. 10 meeting, the dress code was once again briefly addressed by the board as member Ginny Hovespian made a request to put a revised administration regulation on a future agenda regarding the dress code. Her request is that it is revised to have “a progressive process that does not prevent a student from attending classes for non compliance with specific aspects of the dress code regarding hair length and the wearing of earrings.”

The board agreed to Hovespian’s request and they will deliberate on the dress code once again either at tonight’s (Feb. 24) meeting or another meeting soon.

Board members did not speak any further on the issue on Feb. 10, but members of the public did address the board on the issue during public comments.

Ivette Lee, a parent of a Granite Ridge student and a Clovis North student, said she is in favor of the current dress code and the professionalism it promotes which she believes leads to increased success in the classroom.

“I know I didn’t come in my business suit but I feel pretty confident because I’m not only modest but am dressed appropriately for this type of meeting and I feel there is a link between behavior and students’ success in the classroom,” Lee said. “There have been studies by Harvard and Psychology Today that have addressed this issue and teachers say they notice the [positive] effects of the dress code when it is not in a way that students’ dress would be distracting other students or distracting the classroom.”

Lee said she has a petition circulating among students who support the current dress code and hopes to bring a group of students to the next board meeting.

“They themselves as students have noticed that when they dress well or they dress according to the code, they feel confident and they feel they are not distracted by other things in the school with their peers so I would like to bring them and myself to your attention,” Lee said.

Buchanan students Rei Bioco and Nina Basherin, both juniors, were also at the meeting and say they do have specific objections to the current dress code and are rallying up their own group of students who do want to see changes made to the dress code.

“We’re not just a bunch of kids that are trying to make noise,” Bioco said. “Obviously I care enough to come here and see how the board meeting runs and formulate a plan to really win them over in the way that is professional and in a way they will understand. Right now we’re coming up with a list [of objections to the dress code] that we can all agree with.”

Basherin and Bioco said their main concern is gender equity.

Avants said the district does work with LBGTQ (Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay, Transgender, and Questioning) students to ensure they have freedom of expression.

“The current language of the dress code does not impact transgender students’ ability to freely express themselves in the gender with which they identify,” Avants said. “As a matter of fact, in Clovis, transgender students are actively engaged in the educational environment and for years we have worked with our transgender students to allow them to freely express themselves in the gender with which they identify.”

Bioco acknowledges that the district does grant students exceptions if they come out as transgender, but said that does not help those who wish to remain “in the closet” or are still questioning their orientation and gender identity.

“I’m the president of the GSA (Gay Straight Alliance) at Buchanan and if there are closeted students we want to make sure they are not afraid and they don’t have to make such a dramatic shift,” Bioco said. “Clothes are just fabric. Fabric doesn’t have a gender and it shouldn’t be assigned one.”

Avants said she feels the dress code has enough leeway for these students to express themselves.

“I can speak from personal, as a graduate of the district, as well as professional experience that the dress code contains great leeway to provide students the opportunity to express themselves through a wide range of clothing, grooming and style choices. Our school administrators are focused on creating environments on their campuses where every student feels comfortable and supported.”

Avants says the reason behind the dress code is to provide a safe environment.

“Our dress code serves and is needed to maintain order to provide a safe school environment and to promote discipline; as well as to help students approach their education seriously,” Avants said.“ Safety is the key component and purpose for our dress code, as it both creates standards of dress and grooming that promote safety, for example, our shoe guidelines, and by discouraging non-District students or other outsiders from coming onto District campuses at the risk of quick and easy identification and removal, as well as to promote a mutually respectful, non-distracting and safe environment on campus by excluding gang related, profane or hate-motivated attire or slogans, and so on.”

The dress code is also meant to foster a successful academic environment and encourage professionalism in the classroom.

“The dress code has long been an important part of Clovis Unified’s multi-faceted work to create a safe school environment that is conducive to learning, free from distraction, and prepares students for success in the professional world,” Avants said. “In our experience we see that the dress code helps students treat their education seriously and responsibly. We regularly hear from our business community that our students enter the work force with a very good understanding of how to present themselves in a professional manner to potential employers.”

Isabel Machado, an immigration attorney in Clovis, said she doesn’t understand how the district forms a link between the student appearance and academic success. The bottom line, she said, is the district “needs to follow the law.”

“School is hard and growing up is hard, especially during the tween and teen years, and being forced to spend those formative years when you are still trying to figure yourself out among your peers and among the community at large living by or dressing by or behaving by quasi-archaic and intolerant rules teaches kids to be that way,” Machado said. “I’m not here because I’m a crazy liberal and I’m going to raise my kid to be a crazy liberal. I’m actually pretty strict and there is nothing wrong with that and I don’t disagree with a lot of the policy but I disagree with the fact that you all or someone believes there is a distinct correlation between appearance and education because there isn’t. This is a public school system. You have to follow the law.”