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April 26, 2014

Dress codes: Where should schools set limits?

Judges have tended to side with schools when safety a concern

EVANSTON, Ill. — They’re called leggings — popular fashion items that are tight-fitting pants to some, and glorified tights to others.

Younger girls often wear them as pants with little fuss. But as those same girls approach middle school, leggings have become a clothing accessory that’s increasingly controversial — and seemingly, the favorite new target of the school dress code.

Some schools have banned leggings outright. Others have set limits. Haven Middle School in Evanston, just north of Chicago, took what turned out to be a contentious stand: If you wear leggings, you need to have a shirt or skirt over them that reaches at least down to your fingertips.

In other words, girls need to cover their behinds.

It might seem a reasonable enough request at a time when school dress codes — and even school uniforms — are common and often supported by teachers and administrators who frequently complain about students who push the limits of good taste, and the parents who let them (and may even push those limits themselves).

But how far is too far? And do schools sometimes go too far in pushing back?

Judges have tended to side with schools when safety is a concern. For example, a federal court agreed with a school district in Morgan Hill, Calif., after some high school students were told not to wear American flag T-shirts on the Mexican holiday of Cinco de Mayo in 2010. The worry was that the shirts would incite conflict with the school’s many Hispanic students.

When safety isn’t at issue, says Perry Zirkel, a professor of education and law at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, the courts tend to throw the cases back to the schools and parents, so they can come up with solutions together.

It’s not always easy, since many people have a different notion of what’s appropriate and what’s not — and what’s distracting, and what’s not.

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