By Vikki Ortiz Healy and Kate Thayer
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) A Chicago area teenager argued that her school’s off-the-shoulder (clothing) policy unfairly targeted female more than male students. After being called out for her outfit, she collected more than 2,000 signatures in support of changing the high school’s dress code.
PARK RIDGE, Ill.
A 17-year-old Park Ridge girl who was told her senior portrait was not appropriate for the yearbook because she wore an off-the-shoulder sweater has reignited ongoing debate about school dress codes and how they should best be applied.
“I was just frustrated that this sort of thing is an issue,” said Grace Goble, who fired off a complaint to administrators at Maine South High School and started an online petition seeking to change the rules. She said the photo studio that took the shots of her wearing the shoulder-baring yellow top in June later decided that the outfit choice “was not allowed.”
“I have spent a good majority of my life wondering why exactly women’s shoulders are so offensive,” Goble wrote in the petition on Change.org. “It is ridiculous that young women aren’t allowed to wear the clothing that they wish to wear simply because it could possibly distract someone.”
Within hours of posting her petition, Goble, who argued that Maine South’s off-the-shoulder policy unfairly targeted female more than male students, collected more than 2,000 signatures in support of changing the high school’s dress code.
Principal Ben Collins called Goble to assure her that he and other administrators did not reject the photo and that a retake was unnecessary.
Maine Township High School District 207 officials said Tuesday that they are looking into its arrangement with the photo studio and could not comment on how the misunderstanding occurred.
Meanwhile, as parents across the Chicago area begin back-to-school shopping, school administrators say the case is the latest example of the complicated nature of school dress codes: a perennial issue that seems to only become more complicated in an age of short shorts, wide social media networks and too many competing interests to count.
“There’s always a balance when it comes to dress code in high school. We want students to understand and be aware that they’re in high school,” said Jennifer Delgado, spokeswoman for Arlington Heights-based Township High School District 214. “But we understand that they’re adolescents and this is all a part of growing up.”
At Maine South, the district’s dress code is a two-paragraph directive that bans a range of items from hats and jackets to symbols on clothing. The rules stipulate that students are “to wear opaque clothing that covers them from shoulder to approximately mid-thigh.”
Rod Halterman, vice president of operations for HR Imaging/Root Studios, which handles senior photographs for 150 schools across the Chicago area, including Maine South, said his company keeps each school’s guidelines on the computer screen when sending students proofs of their photos.
If a photo does not seem to meet the guidelines outlined in a school’s policy, studio employees let students know that they must retake their portraits, Halterman said.
Goble, a National Honor Society member and president of her school’s Thespian Club, said she was baffled when HR Imaging emailed last week to tell her she was one of the dress code offenders.
“When normal body parts that every single person has are turned into something that people are offended by, it doesn’t make any sense,” Goble said.
Goble vented to her parents about her frustration, and they backed their daughter’s idea of challenging the current system.
“I did have this parental gut fear of, ‘Oh my gosh, what am I letting her do?'” said Samantha Goble. “But then I was like, wait a second, this is exactly what I need to be doing. … We’ve tried to raise our kids respecting that they’re people and that their opinions are theirs.”
In St. Charles Community Unit School District 303, a dress code policy also bans “revealing” clothing, mentioning shirts, skirts and shorts typically worn by female students. But district spokeswoman Carol Smith said that’s just one small part of the policy. The rest addresses graphic language, safety concerns and other issues that are gender-neutral.
Smith also said administrators view enforcement as an opportunity to teach, not punish, students. Sometimes students are asked to change into their physical education uniform if their clothes violate the policy.
In Elgin-based School District U-46, schools create posters illustrating the dress code with photos of what is and is not appropriate. As in many districts, shorts and skirts must extend beyond one’s fingertips and shoulders must be covered.
“The main concern is there is no disruption to learning,” spokeswoman Mary Fergus said. “We try to write gender-neutral policies. There has to be some evidence (clothing) really disrupts learning.”
Lyons Township High School in La Grange changed its policy last year, eliminating the reference to clothes having to cover the shoulders to mid-thigh. It also added, “Students have the right to make clothing and accessory selections so that they feel comfortable and confident at school.”
The shift came around the same time a student posted a change.org petition seeking dress code changes, referencing the lack of air-conditioning in classrooms.
“No ones safety is being threatened by an exposed bra strap,” read the petition, signed by 785 people. “So instead of shaming girls for their bodies, teach boys that girls are not sexual objects.”
Arlene Levin of Park Ridge is the parent of a 23-year-old daughter and a 17-year-old son who attends Maine South. Levin said she hopes administrators revisit what she calls “outdated” dress codes that she thinks call out female students more than males and, regardless of gender, aren’t enforced consistently.
School code policies rely on an “outdated notion that boys might not be able to focus on their studies if a girl wears a strap that is only two inches and not three inches, and if their shorts don’t go down past their fingertips,” Levin added. “That’s the same dress code in place when I was in school in the late ’70s. We ought to be considering that.”
Maine South student Caroline Coyle, 17, said there can be a “double standard” when it comes to dress code.
“It’s not just my school. I love my school,” she said. “It’s everywhere that there are these standards for women that in most instances are set by men.”
Other parents say dress code requirements, such as the shorts needing to reach a student’s fingertips, can be impossible to fulfill with today’s fashion choices.
“It’s very difficult,” said Ginger Pennington, a Park Ridge mother who has a hard time finding shorts for her 12-year-old that aren’t for playing basketball.
For now, Collins, who just took over as Maine South principal this summer, has invited Goble to join him and other students when school opens in the fall on a new committee that will re-examine the school dress code.
“Dress codes need to be reviewed occasionally. Styles change and situations change and evolve and dress codes are going to be subject to review every once in a while,” District 207 communications director David Beery said.
District 207 school board member Teri Collins, who also works with teens through her leadership role with the Maine Community Youth Assistance Foundation, said dress code complaints aren’t something she has encountered.
“I’ve heard teens complain the other way, that there are some kids not covering up enough,” she added. “But in general, I haven’t heard anything about dress codes.”
Pioneer Press reporter Jennifer Johnson contributed.