Story at a glance
- School dress code policies disproportionately affect girls, LGBTQ+ students and students of color, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released this week.
- Most school dress codes prohibit students from wearing “immodest” or “revealing” clothing typically worn by girls, as well as certain hairstyles or head coverings that target Black students and students of certain religions and cultures.
- An estimated 15 percent of school dress code policies have different rules for clothing, accessories or hairstyles based on sex and include no protections for transgender or nonbinary students who want to dress in accordance with their gender identity.
Girls, LGBTQ+ students and students of color are disproportionately affected by school dress codes targeting clothing, hairstyles or head coverings, according to a national report released this week by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
Nearly every public school district in the U.S. requires students to adhere to a dress code, often because of safety and security concerns, according to the GAO report published Tuesday. But an agency-led inquiry led into school dress codes across the nation has raised additional concerns over whether such restrictions affect certain students more than others.
According to Tuesday’s report, an estimated 60 percent of school dress codes are enforced by measuring a student’s body or clothing, often involving adults touching students. Consequently, students, particularly young female students, may feel less safe at school, according to individuals interviewed by GAO.
Overall, public school districts are more likely to adopt policies that specifically restrict items typically worn by girls, like skirts, tank tops or leggings, according to the report. Most school dress codes also limit hairstyles and head coverings, which disproportionately impact Black students and students of certain religions and cultures.
Of the schools that enforce stringent dress codes, most of them enroll a majority Black or Hispanic student body and are more likely to remove students from class for violating the dress code, which can be detrimental to students’ development and education.
The GAO report also found that a majority of dress code policies – 93 percent – contain rules with subjective language that leave dress code enforcement open to interpretation. Dress codes commonly use phrases including “revealing” or “immodest” to describe prohibited clothing often worn by women and girls, but subjective language may also inadvertently target LGBTQ+ students, particularly transgender students.
An estimated 15 percent of school dress codes have different rules for clothing, accessories or hairstyles based on sex, according to the report. One policy, for instance, specifies that “no fingernail polish or makeup is allowed on male students,” and an estimated 46 percent of dress code policies prohibit clothing that is either “too tight” or “too loose.”
Of schools that enforce sex-specific dress codes, none of them include protections for transgender or nonbinary students to dress in accordance with their gender identity, the GAO found.
In a recent report from the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), transgender and nonbinary students reported being disciplined at school more frequently than their cisgender peers because they wore clothing considered “inappropriate” based on their sex assigned at birth.
School policies barring students from wearing clothing or hairstyles inconsistent with their sex assigned at birth surged between 2019 and 2021, according to the GLSEN report, after steadily declining since 2013.
The GAO on Tuesday called on the Education Department and Secretary Miguel Cardona to provide resources to assist school districts in designing and enforcing more equitable dress codes that promote a supportive and inclusive learning environment for all students.
A copy of Tuesday’s report was sent directly to Education Department officials, as well as members of Congress, the GAO said.