Inappropriate Apparel?

Our story today is about Olivia Melentree, a senior at Pitman High School in Turlock, CA. She was suspended from school for wearing a crop top and leggings to school, and then arrested when she came back to the school to apologize for her clothing choices. You can read the story here, which also shows the clothing that caused all the trouble.

I can only imagine the trouble that we’re in store for regarding the dress code. Students believe that they should be able to wear whatever they want and that their classmates should keep their eyes to themselves. Parents generally dislike the clothes, but usually side with their kids. School administrators hate these clothes and respond very poorly to them. And the media just wants to blow everything out of proportion.

Before we can talk about this particular dress code, I think it’s valuable to talk about why people like dress codes and think they should be enforced:

  • Dress codes help students shape their lives morally: The thinking here is that students who wear inappropriate clothes may have this inappropriateness spread into other parts of their lives. Eventually, a student wearing revealing clothing may exhibit behaviors that are clearly immoral.
  • Dress codes keep male students from being distracted: When female students wear revealing clothes, it’s thought by advocates of this theory that the male students will be completely unable to control themselves and lose focus in class. More extreme versions of this theory suggest an increase in sexual assaults and general misogyny.
  • Dress codes teach students what is acceptable in the real world: If crop tops and leggings are allowed out in the real world, then they should be allowed in school. One article I read on this issue had a student point out that “we show more skin in our bikinis than we do in our school clothes,” suggesting that dress codes are far too strict.

So, what’s the right answer? Fortunately, you have me to tell you what to think.

  • In my mind, the moral argument mixes correlation with causation. While I will admit that sex workers and other poor role models tend to wear skimpy clothes, I think it’s probably pretty safe to say that the behavior drives the clothes choice and not the other way around.
  • The argument that male students shouldn’t be exposed to bare skin is a little more reasonable. As a former teenager, I can say that the hormone-addled young mind of a teenage boy tends to wander when it sees a female wearing something considered unreasonable (though I think arguing that misogyny and sexual assault as consequences seems to go way too far). In my mind, there’s some point where skimpy clothing on young women inherently disturbs the learning process and should be guided by the school. Where this line is drawn is up for debate, as we’ll discuss.

The best way to determine what dress code is reasonable for a school is to examine the culture of the school in question. Some schools are in conservative areas where midriff-bearing clothing is considered obscene and unreasonable – in areas like this, it makes sense that such clothes are banned. In schools with more liberal thinking, perhaps clothing such as this would be reasonable in the public forum, with a line to be drawn where things are no longer reasonable. And, of course, in private schools the school environment is decided by administrators and parents who can decide whatever they think is reasonable based on the values a school is trying to teach. In short, different schools will have different standards based on the values of their community.

This reasoning is very much in line with the Miller v. California ruling (1973), which made the current standard for whether something is considered pornography – many of the issues of morality vs. free speech are the same in pornographic materials and school dress codes. In this decision, the Miller test was devised which defines whether pornographic speech is allowed. Justice Warren Berger, in his opinion, stated that for something to be considered pornographic, it had to fulfill three conditions, of which only the first is relevant here:

  • (1) whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest;

This really gets to the crux of the matter, stating that contemporary community standards determines whether something is considered obscene. Now, it should be obvious that the standards for clothing will be considerably more conservative than those for pornographic materials. However, deciding whether wearing a midriff-revealing shirt in class is unreasonable given contemporary community standards is something that I think any community can debate and eventually decide together.

As for having a young woman arrested for her clothing in school, let’s just say that this seems a little extreme. Of course, I don’t know what the exact circumstances are, but it’s reasonable to expect that no matter how much of one’s belly is showing (and it wasn’t much), it’s strange to think that putting somebody in handcuffs is a reasonable remediation.

Then again, maybe that matches the community standards of Turlock, CA.

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