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Students should be able to be comfortable in their own skin. They should also be able to express themselves with their clothes, incoming La Cueva High School senior Erica Ho says.
But sometimes, students get in trouble for that expression. And more often than not, Ho says, it’s young women who are singled out – often by dress code enforcers who say their goal is to maintain a professional, “distraction-free” environment.
“You come to school trying to express yourself, … you come to school trying to learn,” Ho said. “You’re not really thinking about if I’m showing too much skin, because that really shouldn’t be on a woman’s mind.”
So, determined to make a change, she raised her concerns with the Albuquerque Public Schools board.
On Wednesday, the board took up that very issue, and unanimously voted to change district policy with new language aimed at equal enforcement of the dress code. The policy changes came after gathering feedback for a year, an APS spokeswoman said.
Ho made an impression on some of the board members. During a discussion about dress code earlier this month, board member Josefina Domínguez referenced her in making a case that the board should do something about young women being overly disciplined or punished because of the dress code.
“Erica very articulately pointed out that it wasn’t her problem if a young man couldn’t control himself, because she was wearing spaghetti straps – that the onus was on young men,” Domínguez said. “She was spot-right-on that we shouldn’t be engaged in controlling girls’ bodies.”
The new APS policy states that students should be able to dress comfortably. It goes on to say that dress code enforcement shouldn’t lead to differential treatment based on racial identity, sex, cultural or religious identity, or “body maturity,” along with several other areas.
It also states that “students and staff are responsible for managing their own distractions without regulating another student’s dress.” Each individual school can adopt its own dress code, and that will be an opportunity for its community to have its say, district policy states.
Ho said dress code enforcement that’s justified by cultivating a professional or distraction-free workplace insinuates two things – first that women are responsible for “others sexualizing their bodies,” and second that women’s bodies do not belong in professional environments.
“In school, you’re never really confronted by a sympathetic dress coder,” Ho said. “If you’re showing too much skin, you’re typically met with degrading, condescending, scolding, or even passive-aggressive remarks … It really makes me not want to come to school.”
In fact, Ho added, pointing out a dress code issue can be more distracting than the outfit getting called out originally was.
Even when that’s not the case, she said “it should be my peers’ responsibility to stay focused on their work, rather than my responsibility to create a ‘distraction-free environment’ for them.”
Ho said she voiced her concerns to the APS board last fall, in a three-student panel which touched on several areas, including issues relating to race.
In discussing language about the discipline and dress code revisions earlier this month, district officials cited New Mexico’s iteration of the Crown Act, which was passed last year.
In language that was also adopted into policy on Wednesday, they stressed not treating a student’s hairstyle or headdress as they relate to students’ culture or race as disciplinary issues.