K-12 education: Ministry of Education should provide information on fairness and safety in school dress codes

What the GAO found

While school districts often cite safety as a reason for having a dress code, many dress codes include elements that can make the school environment less fair and less safe for students. For example, approximately 60% of dress codes have rules involving body and clothing measurement of students, which may involve adults touching students. As a result, students, especially girls, may feel less safe in school, according to a range of stakeholders interviewed by GAO. According to the GAO’s nationally generalizable review of public school dress codes, districts more frequently restrict items typically worn by girls — such as skirts, tank tops, and leggings — than those typically worn by boys. boys – such as muscle shirts. Most dress codes also contain rules about students’ hair, hairstyles and head coverings, which may disproportionately impact black students and those of certain religions and cultures, according to researchers and district officials. . Department of Education (Education) officials told GAO they were considering options to provide helpful resources to stakeholders and the public, but as of September 2022, Education had not provided information on dress codes. Providing such information would be consistent with the agency’s goal of improving fairness and safety in schools.

Items Commonly Prohibited by School Dress Codes

Schools that report enforcing strict dress codes primarily enroll black and Hispanic students and are more likely to drop students from class. GAO’s analysis of national data found that more than four out of five predominantly black schools and nearly two-thirds of predominantly Hispanic schools enforce a strict dress code, compared to about one-third of predominantly white schools. Additionally, schools that enforce strict dress codes are associated with statistically significant higher rates of discipline that keep students away from the classroom (e.g., suspensions). Additionally, about 44% of dress codes described “informal” removal policies, such as removing a student from a class without documenting it as a suspension. The education sector has recently noted challenges with informal withdrawals in guidance documents, but has no information on the prevalence or impact of this emerging issue. Without information on the full range of disciplinary measures applied to children, including informal removals and non-exclusive discipline, education efforts to provide resources on the fair application of discipline will have critical gaps.

Why GAO Did This Study

In recent years, researchers, advocates, parents, and students have raised concerns about fairness in school dress codes. Concerns have included the adverse effects of removing students from the classroom for violating the dress code.

A committee report accompanying HR 7614 included a provision for the GAO to study dress code discipline. This report also responds to a request for a study of informal removals. This report examines (1) the characteristics of K-12 dress codes in school districts nationwide and how education supports the design of fair and safe dress codes; (2) enforcement of dress codes and how education supports equitable enforcement of dress codes.

To examine the characteristics of dress codes, GAO analyzed a nationally representative sample of public school district dress codes. To assess the enforcement of dress codes and how education supports school districts, GAO analyzed education data; reviewed relevant studies on the discipline of dress code; and interviewed academic researchers and officials from national organizations, school districts and education.

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