Medill Media Teens: CPS students call out dress code policies as sexist

A screenshot from a student's social media feed of a flyer taped in a hallway at John Hancock College Prep in response to the school's dress code at the beginning of last school year. (Adrian Salazar/Medill Media Teens)

As part of the Medill Media Teens program, Chicago Public School students received training and worked closely with Medill master’s students to report and write an article that covered an issue in their school community. The piece below, produced under the mentorship of Medill master’s students Sarah Stark and Peter Winslow, focuses on student voices in the dress code controversy happening in several CPS schools. The Chicago Tribune reported last month on the inconsistencies and gendered guidelines in school’s individual policies.

By Meleena Salgado and Adrian Salazar
Medill Media Teens

During remote learning, high school teens became accustomed to choosing their clothes based on comfort. So on the first day of school on Aug. 30, students at John Hancock College Prep were surprised to receive this Google Classroom notification reminding them about the school’s dress code:

“Students, We know that you have not been at school for the past eighteen months; however today, we noticed a lot of students out of dress code. As a reminder, I have copied Hancock’s dress code policy below, from our Student Handbook for your reference.”  

The message went on to say a first-time offense of breaking dress code would result in a change of clothes and, should the uncooperative behavior continue, a student might suffer greater consequences. “A student may also be removed from instructional time if the behavior continues and/or is noncompliant with administrative requests,” it said. 

After over a year of remote learning, Zoom fatigue, pandemic anxiety and mask fishing,  students finally were able to see their friends and teachers in person. Rather than offering a kind “Welcome back,” administrators essentially told them to dress differently—or else. 

In response, someone taped up flyers in the halls with the text, “Are my shoulders distracting you?” in all caps during the following weeks. The main image is of a female-presenting student wearing a spaghetti-strap crop top. The student has short, curly hair with their bare shoulders exposed. Below the image reads: “#FreedomOfExpression.” 

John Hancock wasn’t the only Chicago school where the administration reminded students of the dress code. Around the same time, students at Jones College Prep High School broke dress code in protest in response to administrators’ announcement to “dress appropriately,” WBEZ reported. Students encouraged one another to “wear sexy clothes” or wear the color blue, associated with sexual assault awareness, in support of the protest. 

Edith Casas, a senior at John Hancock and student council vice president, attended a meeting in October during which  the principal directly avoided talking about the dress code. According to those present, the principal changed the topic to whether students wanted to have a homecoming dance that year. 

However, this isn’t stopping students from speaking up. Lizbeth Pulido, a junior at John Hancock, was supposed to give a presentation about the dress code at a local schools council meeting. The group, which creates the dress code, is made up of community members, parents and students. The meeting was ultimately canceled. 

According to the slideshow Pulido made, she planned to share how students felt about the dress code at Hancock. The same claims of discrimination against female students appeared once again. Some student suggestions Pulido collected involved restricting discriminatory clothing, any graphic clothing depicting sex or violence and clothing that deliberately shows undergarments. This dress code is a lot less strict, and it was created by students, for students.

Two juniors at John Hancock College Prep, Sophia Anaya and Enola Smith, both want to get rid of parts of the code that target female students by implying female students distract male students. Instead of punishing these students, school administrators should “teach boys to control themselves,” Smith said.

John Hancock administrators never officially responded to the posters or to students’ concerns about the dress code. 

“I just think that specifically in our school administration, like, even though there was pushback towards the dress code, they didn’t address that at all,” Frida Santoyo, a junior and member of the Social Justice Club at John Hancock college Prep said, “and just kind of didn’t hear the students when they had an opinion on it.”

Even when acts of rebellion don’t effect immediate change, it doesn’t mean individual protests are wasted, said Jo Reger, a sociology professor at Oakland University in Michigan who has studied waves of feminist activism for decades.“People want a policy, a law, a huge cultural shift,” Reger said. “I think that outcomes often are a lot more subtle than that.” 

Lane Tech senior Naomi Epstein, the leader of the school’s activism club Champions for Change, follows this example.  “A big part of our club surrounds conversations and having these difficult conversations,” Epstein said. 

Reger said talking can also be a form of activism. “What you did is you created a conversation,” Reger said. “You changed the way some people thought, and you opened up some new ways of pursuing things. Sometimes it’s just changing the people that were involved, and then they go on to make a difference in society.”

Meleena Salgado and Adrian Salazar are rising seniors at John Hancock College Prep.