The student dress code debate (part II).


dress code debate. We noted that while proponents of dress codes and

school uniforms often attempt to link adolescents’ clothing choices

to their behaviors, our small study (the results were highlighted in

Techniques last month) indicated there was not a significant

relationship between the level of offensiveness in attire and a

student’s behavioral problems at school. These results support the

research by Brunsma and Rockquemore (2001) that adolescent dress does

not affect school behaviors.

Implications and Court Rulings

What implications, then, does our re-search study have regarding

the debate to require school dress codes or school uniforms? It may

depend on the school system’s reason for the policy. It is our view

that there is not a significant relationship between the level of

offensiveness in attire and a student’s behavioral problems at

school, and the adoption of a dress code policy will not significantly

impact school attendance or behavior.

With regard to dress code policies, it is important to note that

many court systems attempt to make a distinction between dress codes

that govern freedom of expression and those that regulate message

content. Weisenberger (2000) suggests that a balance test is often used

to determine if a dress code appears to be unconstitutional. The balance

test weighs several factors, including students’ rights, the rights

of others, and the rights of educators.

Many school systems advocate that dress codes are less restrictive

than school uniform policies. For example, a school system may require

students to wear solid colors and ban images and/or logos on clothing as

did a school district in Napa, California. There a student was

reprimanded and sent to detention because she wore socks adorned with

the Disney images of Winnie-the-Pooh’s friend Tigger. However, the

student’s family sued the school district for violation of the

right of freedom of speech. The school district rescinded its decision

of a strict dress code to a more lax policy allowing images and fabrics

other than solid colors. The school district admitted that banning

images on clothing may raise concerns about the restriction of religious

and political speech (Wilde, 2009).

In two other important cases, overturned by the United States

Supreme Court in 2007, students were suspended from school for violating

school dress codes (Wilde, 2009). One Vermont student wore a T-shirt

depicting former President George Bush surrounded by drug and alcohol

images. The Supreme Court stood by a lower court’s decision by

ruling that the student was protected by free political expression. A

student in a San Diego high school was suspended for wearing an anti-gay

T-shirt. Again, the Supreme Court ruled against the school system and

upheld the student’s right to free speech. In both of these

situations, the Supreme Court ruled against the school system and in

favor of the right to free speech. So, having a school dress code may

not even be enforceable by the school district.

Moving Forward

Since T-shirts are common dress for many adolescents, it is our

hope that the results of our small but telling research study will help

explain what high school students view as offensive, as well as how

perceptions of offensiveness might affect dress and behavior. This

information can be used to guide school administrators as they set dress

codes and make decisions relating to school uniforms, and help them gain

an understanding of the impact of dress on adolescent identification. In

addition, careful consideration should be given to freedom of religious

and political expression and to individual rights to the freedom of

speech as guaranteed by the United States Constitution. Due to the

homogeneity of the sample and response, the authors’ acknowledge

its limitations in regard to sample size and recommend replication with

a. larger more diverse sample in order for the results to be generalized

to a larger population.


Arnold, D. D. and Workman, J. E. (2003).”Ownerships of

Offensive T-shirts and Problem Behavior in High School Students.”

Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences, 95(3). 32-39.

Brunsma, D. and Rockquemore, K.A. (2001). “Effects of Student

Uniforms on Attendance, Behavior Problems, Substance Use, and Academic

Achievement.” The Journal of Educational Research, 92(1). 53-62.

Freeburg, E.W., Workman, J.E., and LentaHees, E.S. (2004).

“Rationale for Student Dress Codes: A Review of School

Handbook.” Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences, 96(1).77-82

Papalia, D., Olds, S., and Feldman, R. (2009). Human Development

(11th ed.). New York: NY: McGraw-Hill.

Melinda Swafford, ph.d., in an associate professor in family and

consumer sciences education at Tennessee Technological University School

of Human Ecology. She can be contacted at

Lee Ann Jolley, Ph. D., CFCS, is an assistant professor in child

development and family relations at Tennessee Technological University

School of Human Ecology. She can he contacted at


Leigh Southward, ph.D., is an associate professor of apparel

studies in the college of agricultural, food and life sciences at the

University of Arkansas School of Human Sciences. She can be contacted at

Editor’s note: Schools and school districts face the challenge

of monitoring students’ modes of attire in a bid to promote order,

an environment conducive to learning, to ward off gangs, and more.

School districts across the country have adopted dress codes governing

the way students dress for school. The U.S. Department of Education

reported that about one in five public schools, including early

colleges, required students to wear uniforms during the 2007-2008 school

year. This is the second of a two-part article by family and consumer

sciences educators looking at the relationship between dress and

behavior among high school students. The first part was featured last


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