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Charleston school board rejects controversial dress code, but parents say it isn't enough

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Students leave class for the day at Cane Bay Middle School in Summerville on Jan. 30, 2020. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

The Charleston County School Board has shut down a set of controversial revisions to the student dress code policy that would have banned such things as "excessively form-fitting" clothing and pants with rips or tears above the knee, but a group of parents still say the district's existing dress code needs improvement. 

The proposed set of revisions to the district's dress code policy, spearheaded by board member the Rev. Chris Collins, initially passed at the end of January. When it came up again for a second reading earlier this month, board members approved a revision to the school uniform appeal processes but took no vote on the controversial changes.

That was a victory for Kat Martin, a parent who has spoken out against the revisions at multiple school board meetings.

But even though the new changes were ultimately rejected, she and a group of other parents say there's still more work to be done. 

"Based on some of the stories we’ve gotten, we believe that the current dress code is still biased and discriminatory and has some room for improvement," Martin said. 

Since all public K-12 schools across the state will remain closed through the end of April due to the spread of the new coronavirus, it's unknown when district officials will have the chance to meet with parents in-person to discuss their concerns. 

School board Vice Chairwoman Kate Darby said she's open to starting a dialogue with parents about the dress code, but said that with everything else going on right now she's unsure there would be time to implement a new policy before the start of the next school year. 

"Staff is stretched to no end right now with just trying to educate kids ... and getting kids fed and all that, so I don't know that staff would have the time to devote to a task force right now," Darby said. 

The proposed policy revisions would have required that students' garments be loose-fitting with hemlines that are "near or approaching the knee." Clothing with an open back, exposed shoulders, open chest or an exposed stomach or waist would also be banned, and distracting tattoos or body piercings would need to be covered up. 

"The bottom line is that the kids come to learn. It’s not about fashion or clothes. They come to school to learn," Collins said. "Sometimes a kid wears something that distracts from that education. That’s really the bottom line. We’re working to focus on education."

Collins said he's spoken with numerous teachers and school principals who supported his revisions. 

But some parents argue that both the proposed changes and the district's existing policy don't do enough to protect young women. 

Research has shown that strict dress codes can be unfair to girls and people of color, Martin said. 

She collected and compiled pages of personal stories from other Charleston County parents about their children's experience with the dress code enforcement to send to board members.

Many parents shared stories about how they felt like their daughters had been humiliated at school because of dress code enforcement.

One parent referenced what was called the "Shirt of Shame," a red or yellow oversize T-shirt "they make the kids wear it if they wear leggings with shorter shirts or they don't like what they are wearing." This is the kind of behavior Martin and other parents fighting the dress code say they would like to see explicitly prohibited in CCSD's policy.

"We want to work with the board to create something that’s more protective and less punitive," Martin said. 

Some of the items, including leggings, spaghetti straps and sleepwear, were already a part of the district's student code of conduct, Collins said. 

He argued that making the update to the district policy would make it easier for teachers to enforce dress code rules and regulations. 

"These are just basic standard Christian values and moral values that any parent should want for their child. The child is covered up, the child is safe," Collins said, adding that the way the policy is written doesn't discriminate unfairly against girls.

Sarah Simpson is another parent opposed to the revisions who is fighting for change to the existing policy. She'd read in the news about similar policies from school districts across the country.

"When it happened here, I was outraged. And I knew it was something that I wanted to fight," Simpson said. 

Before schools were closed because of the COVID-19 virus, Simpson and other parents emailed board members asking to schedule a meeting to discuss how the existing dress code could be improved.

"You know, we’re body shaming our daughters. And we're sexualizing shoulders, and a couple inches above the knee," Simpson said of the current policy.

Collins said he welcomes any feedback and encouraged parents to call or email him with their thoughts but said typically the district doesn't form a public committee for policy revisions.

He plans to edit his version of the proposed changes and bring them back to the board again in the future. 

"Teachers need to be able to teach in a classroom without any distractions," he said. 

Due to the uncertainty surrounding school closures and the ongoing pandemic, Collins said he wasn't sure when he would have the chance to further workshop the dress code policy. He emphasized that his policy was meant to protect students and minimize disruptions in the classroom.  

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Contact Jenna Schiferl at 843-937-5764. Follow her on Twitter at @jennaschif. 

Jenna Schiferl was born and raised in Columbia, South Carolina and is a graduate of the University of South Carolina. She has worked as an education reporter for The Post and Courier since 2019.

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