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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

ACLU Calls On Kenosha School District To Prevent Sexist Dress Code Enforcement

Yoga pants are now allowed in Kenosha public schools. But ACLU attorneys worry dress code enforcement could still be discriminatory.

The ACLU of Wisconsin is putting pressure on the Kenosha Unified School District to protect its students from what some are calling "discriminatory" dress code enforcement. Last year, Kenosha-area teens and parents spoke out against the district’s dress code policy, saying it was discriminatory toward female students.

Alexa Grosz was one of the students who testified at an October school board meeting. She said she was punished for wearing an off-the-shoulder sweater.

“I was told that I was distracting to others and that I would need to leave,” Grosz said. “I was not only embarrassed due to the fact that all of my peers watched me get escorted out of the room in dead silence, but also ashamed.”

The school board responded to community concerns by relaxing some parts of the dress code that were focused on clothing usually worn by girls and women – tank tops, yoga pants and leggings.

But the issues apparently didn’t end there.

ACLU Wisconsin staff attorney Asma Kadri Keeler says the civil liberties group heard from a female student in June. The student said her clothing was criticized by a teacher in her summer school class.

“A female student had been shamed in front of her classmates and threatened to be sent home two days in a row for wearing a tank top and shorts to a summer gym class,” Kadri Keeler recounted.

The attorney says that raised questions about how the Kenosha public school staff were trained to enforce new dress code rules. Kadri Keeler says she reviewed the district’s guidelines around dress code enforcement and found them lacking.

“The document itself was threadbare,” said Kadri Keeler. “There was no commitment to anti-discriminatory measures. It didn’t have any clear-cut guidelines on how a teacher or administrator would enforce the dress code. It was bare-bones.”

That prompted the ACLU to issue a news release calling on the Kenosha district to revisit its dress code enforcement policy. The ACLU says the district should prohibit staff from body shaming, harassing students, or forcing students to miss class time for dress code violations.

Currently, Kadri Keeler says the ACLU is not planning legal action. But she hopes Kenosha and other school districts take the issue seriously.

“I don’t think [Kenosha] is the only district in this state that has this problem,” Kadri Keeler said. “Dress codes are unevenly enforced against girls because they’re considered a distraction to boys in the classroom. And that reinforces stereotypes about girls and how they dress and it privileges boys’ ability to concentrate over girls’ comfort and ability to learn."

Following publication of this story, the Kenosha Unified School District sent this statement:

The Kenosha Unified School District takes seriously its obligation to provide students with the opportunity to participate in an educational environment free from discrimination and harassment. We have taken reasonable steps in order to ensure that the student dress code policy is fair on its face and in its enforcement. In spring 2018, the policy was reviewed and approved for rollout to students and staff at the start of the 2018-19 school year and has been going very well since the opening of school on Sept. 4. We look forward to a successful school year for students, staff and the community.

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Emily is WUWM's education reporter and a news editor.
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