Students Detail Experiences of Sexualization Amidst Dress Code Discussion at CUSD Board Meeting

Dr. Kathryn Forbes, the department chair of women’s gender and sexuality studies at Fresno State, spoke at the May 19 CUSD board meeting regarding student dress code. (CUSD/YouTube)

Each year the Clovis Unified School District (CUSD) dress code comes into question by students within the district. However, many parents and administrators believe that the dress code is exceptional the way it is.

Nearly 20 CUSD students, local activists, and one Fresno State professor addressed the governing board about the dress code in person at the CUSD governing board meeting on May 19.

Numerous students shared testimonies from themselves or other students who experienced alleged embarrassment, sexual harassment, and sexual assault due to dress code violations.

Many of the students were female and feel that the dress code targets them more heavily than male students.

One Buchanan high school student said she feels that the dress code sexualizes minors and unfairly targets women and feminine presenting people. She said the dress code is often used as a tool to victim-blame people who’ve been sexually harassed and assaulted.

She detailed a time when another student sexually assaulted her, and when she told a teacher, the teacher allegedly told her, “Boys will be boys, and that he probably just liked me.”

“The CUSD dress code claims to protect women,” the girl said. “Yet every single girl I know has been sexually assaulted or harassed on campus, and none of them have received justice.”

She said that instead of focusing on using the dress code to protect girls, CUSD should teach boys to respect young girls.

Another student from Clovis High seconded this sentiment, saying that if the district feels that certain clothes are disrupting learning environments and jeopardizing the safety of female students, then there is a serious problem beyond the dress code.

“I’m speaking to you honestly, and I know you have seen the stressful lives of your students firsthand,” the student said. “But feeling confined and even sexualized by the dress code should not be another source of anxiety.”

Dr. Kathryn Forbes, the department chair of women’s gender and sexuality studies at Fresno State, whose research areas are higher education and Title IX, also addressed the board.

“Dress codes are one tool that unwittingly enforces harmful beliefs about gender,” Dr. Forbes said.

Dr. Forbes said that dress codes are part of a hidden curriculum that reinforces existing social and economic hierarchies. She said the experiences and changes the girls expressed are backed by decades of dress code research.

Furthermore, Dr. Forbes believes that CUSD has a Title IX problem with students experiencing harassment at school, which she said the dress code upholds.

“Most disturbing to me is hearing student testimony, that they [students] feel sexualized by the teachers that are…supposed to teach them,” Dr. Forbes said.

Boardmember Susan Hatmaker said CUSD does not tolerate the alleged incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault. She said students who have experienced those incidents should file a complaint, and the district would investigate those allegations.

The Inter-School Council (ISC), composed of six leaders from each district’s high schools, shared its opinion on the dress code.

“Overall, Clovis Unified students agree the dress code enforces the high standards and expectations known in and around the district. Students also believe that our dress code prepares them for their future as professionals.”

ISC says the highest number of incidents came from yoga pants and leggings. The only request from the group is that yoga-type pants be added to the dress code.

However, other students say that the issue is not only what violates the dress code but how it is regulated and handled by the administration.

The dress code continues to be a divisive topic between students, parents and district, with many on the far opposite sides of the spectrum.

According to CUSD Superintendent Dr. Eimear O’Farrell, results from the School Assessment and Review Team (SART) data indicate that 62% of parents ask for the dress code to remain as is or to be more strict.

However, 80% of surveyed graduating seniors feel that the district should loosen restrictions on the dress code.

The last time CUSD amended the dress code was in 2016.

Members of the board have expressed that it may be time to amend the dress code, but no concrete answer on what changes would be made was given.

CUSD Board President Dr. Steven Fogg said that he feels that the district should update the dress code.

Dr. Fogg noted it would take all sides who either want change or don’t want change to agree on a dress code that pleases all parties.

“We don’t want to be influenced by one particular group or idea,” Dr. Fogg said. “It needs to encompass all the community and not necessarily the loudest voices.”

Amending the dress code is a tedious process that will include SART committees, stakeholder groups, and community involvement.

The earliest the board would hear recommendations and feedback on the matter would be in the fall.

Only time will tell whether a change to the dress code is forthcoming and to what extent that change will be.

Anthony De Leon
Anthony De Leon is a journalist who started his career in 2017, covering sports for the Fresno City College Rampage, earning his Associate Degree in the process. He then moved on to Fresno State, working for The Collegian serving as Sports Editor, Managing Editor and Editor-in-Chief. He earned his Bachelor’s Degree in print journalism. In August, he will begin attending Reynold’s School of Journalism Master’s program at the University of Nevada, Reno.