On Wednesday morning, as a dozen Urbana Middle School eighth-graders prepared to enter school, most wore baggy yellow T-shirts that read in marker: “I am more than just a distraction.”
They were among students in two Frederick County Public Schools who claim their respective schools’ dress codes unfairly target girls and promote a culture of shaming them.
School district administration said the dress codes, which individual principals have wide latitude to determine in their respective schools, are in place to ensure a safe, nurturing learning environment, free of distractions.
Urbana Middle welcomed a new principal this year, Peter Daddone from Montgomery County Public Schools. Girls at the school, interviewed on Wednesday, said Daddone has taken an authoritarian approach with enforcing the dress code, making them wear ill-fitting yellow T-shirts to cover up dress code violations.
Dress code infractions have been turned into a verb by students and parents — students are “dress-coded” when they violate the policy.
Daddone directed all questions to the school district’s communications office. District spokesman Michael Doerrer said the yellow T-shirts are not a punishment, and merely a way for each student to return to class until a parent can bring an appropriate outfit to school.
“It’s not a scarlet letter,” Doerrer said.
Students at Urbana Middle, however, disagree. They said Wednesday that being made to wear the yellow shirts clashes with the school’s policy, which states students “who are in violation will be addressed privately by an administrator or staff member.”
They also object to parts of the dress code, specifically that Urbana Middle does not allow spaghetti straps — thin straps that fall across the shoulder — or shorts or miniskirts with less than a 4-inch inseam.
Girls “should be conscious” of shirts that reveal cleavage, the policy states.
Students started “rebelling” on Monday, in part because they felt humiliated by the yellow shirts, eighth-grader Abby Carioti said. That day, when students infringed on the dress code and were given the shirts, the entire cafeteria cheered when they walked back in.
“They’re telling us it’s our responsibility to not be distracting, when it should be their responsibility,” Carioti said of the administrators.
She said the school should not teach boys that it’s shameful for a girl to expose her shoulders.
More of Urbana Middle School’s dress code addresses girls, the students said in interviews.
Asked if the dress code unfairly targeted girls, Tom Saunders, the school district’s instructional director of middle schools, said male fashion has remained relatively unchanged over the years, such as T-shirts and shorts in the summer. Also, boys typically don’t need to deal with revealing undergarments, such as a bra, he said.
Often, in middle school, students grow rapidly, Saunders said, so clothes that may have been appropriate early on in middle school no longer fit. He encouraged parents with problems with the dress code to contact their principal.
“I think the basis of the policy is keeping a safe, nurturing learning environment,” Saunders said.
High school instructional director Kathleen Schlappal said female fashions are more varied, leading to more rules surrounding girls in dress codes.
The Frederick County Board of Education enforces minimum standards of a dress code — students can’t wear clothing that’s “unduly revealing” — but its policy has not been updated since 2004.
In an interview, school board President Brad Young said he was “shocked” by some of the fashions that both students and teachers wear in schools. He was not aware of complaints regarding dress code, but said board members would re-examine the policy if necessary.
Parent Tina Allgaier said she agrees with dress code enforcement and a degree of modesty. Her daughter attends Urbana Middle. She also had three boys pass through the school.
“I think the shirt is fine, so instead of sending them home, they wear the shirt,” she said.
Several other people who agree with Allgaier sent emails to The Frederick News-Post on Wednesday.
Principals can write and enforce specific dress codes at school, depending on their school community. Doerrer said the district trusts them to do that.
At Linganore High School, senior Rachel Zuniga knew she wanted to petition the dress code. She had never been involved much in school, but said this was important to her because she felt the dress code promoted “rape culture.”
She’s garnered about 500 signatures on her paper-and-pencil petition so far against the Linganore dress code. A Twitter handle “@LinganoreGirls,” separate from her petition, was created after it began to circulate. The person behind that account claimed to want to work against misogyny and body shaming in the school.
Zuniga questioned why girls were asked to cover a majority of their legs, backside and shoulders, and said the administration told her it was a distraction. Students don’t care, though, Zuniga said. Administrators do.
Linganore Principal Nancy Doll did not respond to a phone request and an emailed request for comment.
“They’re teaching guys that it is OK for their wrongdoings against females because of our actions,” Zuniga said in an interview. “We wore this, so it’s our fault for their misbehavior.”
Zuniga said what she wore didn’t matter the night that she was sexually assaulted by two men. She was wearing a long-sleeved shirt, long pants and a long coat.
The News-Post does not generally name the alleged victims of sexual assault, but Zuniga requested that her story and name be public because she’s passionate about the issue of “rape culture.”
“It wasn’t my clothes. It wasn’t my fault whatsoever,” Zuniga said. “So with the dress code, it’s not our fault if boys misbehave.”
Maile Beers-Arthur, whose twin daughters were pulled aside by an Urbana Middle school to be lectured about the dress code, said she was pleased the principal there had inspired such a movement among the students. Her daughters are learning about peaceful protests and their free speech rights, she said.
“On a micro level, this points to what’s going on a macro level, which is blame the woman,” Beers-Arthur said.