Charleston County School of the Arts students have been wearing scarlet letters for nearly a week to protest what they say is unfair and disrespectful enforcement of the school’s dress code.
Reese Fischer, a junior creative writing student at the school who helped organize the protest, said she doesn’t oppose the dress code. But, based on her experience, faculty members enforce the dress code more strictly against girls than boys, and against heavy-set girls than smaller girls, she said.
“Especially in the summer, you see guys walking around in muscle tank tops with half their sides hanging out and their pants hanging down, and they don’t get called out for that,” Fischer said. “They don’t get called out for wearing a hat, but a girl will get called out for a short skirt in a second.”
A school administrator has said the school is enforcing the rules that Charleston County schools have had for years. But the ongoing protest at School of the Arts, a countywide magnet for middle- and high-school students, isn’t an isolated incident.
At other schools around the nation, students have pushed back against dress codes they believe are discriminatory. And while some public schools have addressed dress-code problems by bringing back school uniforms, others have sought a balance between letting students express themselves through their attire, while also minimizing distractions to learning.
School of the Arts’ dress code states that “appropriate, decent and non-distracting attire must be worn” and prohibits hats indoors, exposed underwear, bare skin “between upper chest and mid thigh,” shoulder straps less than two fingers wide, and clothing that features inflammatory or profane messages. Students who break the dress code can be sent to an administrator’s office and told to change into a school-owned T-shirt and sweatpants.
Fischer said that on the first day of the protest last Thursday, about 100 students — as well as some faculty — wore a homemade red A on their clothing, sometimes as part of a slogan, “Not A Distraction.” The red letter A is a reference to the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel “The Scarlet Letter,” in which 17th-century Puritans force a young woman to wear the letter after finding her guilty of adultery.
According to Fischer, teachers have made derogatory remarks to students in the past while enforcing the dress code, including one teacher who told her to wrap a sweater around her waist because her shorts were too short. “It would have been one thing if the teacher had said, ‘I need you to go down to the office and change clothes,’” Fischer said. “Instead she said, ‘You might as well be wearing underwear. I can’t believe you walked out the door like that.’”
“I understand that a dress code enforces a professional and comfortable learning environment,” Fischer added. “I don’t think it’s unreasonable, but I do think it’s unreasonable that it’s not across the board and there is room for teachers to make comments about it.”
Robert Perrineau, high school assistant principal at School of the Arts, said he was impressed by the students’ peaceful activism, which he called “learning in action.” After meeting with Fischer to discuss the issue last week, he spoke with students and teachers about the need for fair enforcement.
“This is just a reminder of what was is already in place, that we need to be consistent and be equitable and be fair to everyone,” Perrineau said. “We do want to make sure that we’re all giving that reminder and giving attention to any individual student situation in the same way. We want the point to be made, but we want to be respectful.”
Asked whether any employees enforced the dress code more strictly for girls, Perrineau said, “I’m not in every class individually to say yea or nay. It’s possible that a young man has on a tank top and is overlooked and that a female student has on the very same type of tank top, and because the female anatomy is different, something was said to the female. So in that case I would understand why a teenage girl would say, ‘Well, they’re picking on me.’ ”
Several student protests against allegedly gender-biased dress codes have cropped up around the country recently. A group of Manhattan Middle School students in Boulder, Colo., dubbed themselves the “Womanhattan Project” and brought their concerns to a principal; a high school senior in Wyoming started a petition against a ban on exposed shoulders; and students started speaking out about dress-code issues on social media using the hashtag #IAmMoreThanADistraction.
At School of the Arts, some boys have been sporting a red A, but most of the protesters have been girls. Peyton Corder, an 11th-grade strings student who wore a homemade felt A on her shirt Monday, said the enforcement can take an emotional toll. She said she broke down crying recently when a guidance counselor told her that heavier girls needed to wear longer skirts.
“We’re just tired of being objectified,” Corder said. “We worked hard to be here. We just want to learn. We want to wear what we want to wear, we want to express ourselves, and we just want to learn.”
Perrineau said he had not gotten calls from parents about the dress code, and students said parents were split on the issue.
Matt Hamrick, an SoA parent, said he thinks parts of the dress code are “fairly puritanical,” and he supports his daughter’s decision to wear a red A.
“In my opinion, there should be a dress code that is gender-neutral and applies to everyone and is enforced equally,” Hamrick said.
His daughter, Caroline Hamrick, a 10th-grade percussion student, said the way school employees check for dress code violations can sometimes be humiliating, like what happened one day last year when a teacher confronted her about wearing a short-cropped sweater and a high-waisted skirt.
“My midriff was covered and I was within dress code, but they really wanted me to have to change, so they asked me to raise my arms all the way up,” Hamrick said. “And of course you could see my midriff once I raised my arms, but I was like, ‘Still, I’m not like this all the time.’ And she said, ‘Well, I can see your bra,’ and she couldn’t see my bra, so she leaned down and looked up my shirt and made me extremely uncomfortable and said, ‘There, I can see your bra.’”
Hamrick said that while many students only wore red A’s for a day, she plans to wear hers until she sees a change.
“I’m pretty sure the administration thinks it’s just going to fizzle out in a week, but we’re trying to keep that from happening,” Hamrick said.