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Dec. 3, 2022

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Parents, students at Longview’s R.A. Long are asking school officials to change ‘sexist’ dress code

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LONGVIEW — Several parents at R.A. Long High School are protesting what they say is an unfair dress code that often unreasonably targets female students and disrupts their education.

Zahara Vasey, a 10th-grader who attends Mark Morris High School but takes a class at R.A. Long, told school board members Monday evening about how she has been pulled out of class four times since the start of this school year for what administrators saw as an inappropriate outfit.

Dressed in a long-sleeved shirt and jeans, Vasey said even the outfit she wore to the meeting would be considered a violation of R.A. Long’s dress code simply because her bra strap was sometimes visible.

“For me to walk into school almost every day and be told that my clothes aren’t OK, that partly makes me feel sexualized,” Vasey said.

Dress codes vary by school within the district. Superintendent Dan Zorn said in an interview the district gives each school the authority to set its own guidelines because administrators understand their school culture better than those outside of it.

He said if the school board feels the need to review and change the districtwide dress code policy, which leaves dress code violations up to the principal, then they will discuss that option.

“They are concerns that we are listening to,” Zorn said.

‘Going backward’

Vasey’s mother Kathryn Gipson said they believe the dress codes between the two high schools should be equitable and gender-neutral.

Other parents have joined in efforts to push for state legislation that would set a more inclusive dress code standard so schools do not have the ultimate authority over what they consider inappropriate.

Gipson said although R.A. Long’s dress code says it applies to every student, the rules focus more on women’s clothing. The school’s administration has set what Gipson believes are overly strict rules for bra straps, shorts, skirts and leggings.

Finding clothes that are well within these regulations is difficult because of how strict the rules are, Gipson said.

The violations lead to students being pulled from class, which Gipson said is the opposite of what a dress code is supposed to accomplish.

“If they have a problem with her clothes, then they should call me,” Gipson said. “I’m the one who buys the clothes for her. If they want to dictate what my child wears, then they should mandate uniforms.”

Jessica Smith, a parent to a daughter attending Cascade Middle School, said when she attended R.A. Long about 15 years ago the policies were not nearly as strict.

“When I went to R.A. Long — and I graduated in 2007 — I was allowed to have holes in my jeans,” Smith said. “I think it’s interesting it seems to be going backward.”

How schools handle dress code

In 2010, Longview School District updated and adopted its own policy that leaves most of the dress code guidelines up to individual administrators. Zorn said he believes in his eight years in the district, no one had brought concerns directly to him before this week.

Many of the differences between the two high schools comes down to the language used in the policies. Both schools have rules against pajamas, excessively ripped pants and clothes that depict illegal activity or hate speech.

“There’s way more that’s similar about those policies than different,” Zorn said.

R.A. Long’s dress code policy, according to its 2022-23 student handbook, says students have to wear shorts or skirts that fall no more than 2 inches above the knee. At Mark Morris, the policy says bottoms must go down to “approximately 3 to 4 inches in length on the upper thighs,” according to its 2022-23 student handbook.

At R.A. Long, students are not allowed to wear any crop-tops or “low-cut” shirts. Mark Morris’ code details that a shirt should not expose “excessive midriff.” Mark Morris students can wear hats; R.A. Long students can’t.

“I understand there needs to be a dress code,” Gipson said. “With the way things are changing, it would just make sense to make it a blanketed thing and not have discrepancy between schools.”

Smith said female students often feel singled out when their male teachers confront them about their outfits. It could cause harm, she said, to sexual abuse survivors who feel targeted. Lower-income students who might not have the ability to buy new clothes may also feel ostracized, she said.

A slightly visible bra strap or a shirt that exposes shoulders should not be considered inappropriate, Smith said, because girls should not feel sexualized for wearing bras or having shoulders.

“I don’t want them to feel like their body is being judged while they’re at school,” Smith said.

Efforts to make dress codes more consistent across school districts have ramped up in recent years.

Seattle Public Schools in 2019 voted to establish a districtwide dress code after similar protests from students and parents who said the rules unfairly targeted female students, students of color and genderqueer students.

“I really love our school system and I’ve had great experiences here for the most part,” Smith said. “I don’t think this is just a Longview School District problem. I think it’s honestly a national and global problem, but change starts in our community at the local level.”

Sydney Brown is a news reporter for The Daily News covering education and environmental issues in Cowlitz County.

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