Cruz Walden

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Virginia Governor’s School Introduces Dress Code Reform
By Cruz Walden
Dec. 1, 2021 – PETERSBURG, Va.

Appomattox Regional Governor’s School, an arts and technology-focused high school in Petersburg, is revising their dress code. The school sent out a survey to students on Sept. 14 on what changes they would like to see.

The high school, although located in Petersburg, operates under the Chesterfield County student handbook. The potential dress code changes, if implemented, would not go into effect until the 2022-23 school year. These changes have yet to be determined.

The survey, which was open from Sept. 14-21, asked students three different questions: the survey taker’s name and grade; a multiple choice question asking what the dress code meant to them; and a blank option asking for any additional comments about the dress code. The multiple choice question had four different answers to choose from: “I think the dress code is fine”; “I think the dress code is discriminatory against those who present femininely”; “I think the dress code is discriminatory against those who present masculinely”; and “Other,” with a fill-in-the-blank option after that.

According to the 2021-22 Appomattox Regional Governor’s School student handbook, students may not wear the following: spaghetti strap tops; strapless or off-the-shoulder tops; leggings; and skirts and shorts below fingertip length. However, since the Governor’s School does offer performing arts curriculum, dance and theater students are allowed to change into these clothes if required for performances. (source)

Students have said that these types of policies discriminate against feminine-presenting students, alleging that male students do not often wear the clothing forbidden by typical dress codes. Rae Walden, a 16-year-old visual arts student at Appomattox Regional Governor’s School, expressed her concerns about the matter.

“As someone who presents female, the dress code is against me especially since I only wear leggings, and the dress code specifically says you can’t wear leggings as pants,” Walden said when asked about how she is impacted by the current dress code. “When the temperatures get hot, we get dress-coded for wearing tank tops… The current dress code makes shoulders seem inherently sexual.”

Walden, who is a junior at the Governor’s School, expressed that the same standard is not held for masculine-presenting individuals. “Their restrictions are pretty much ‘don’t wear shirts with graphic content on them and wear pants that fit.’ For girls, it’s much more than that.” She then went on to say that the dress code is biased against plus-sized individuals, citing that she has seen administrators enforcing the dress code more on plus-sized students and less on thinner ones.

When asked if the administration has handled the dress code reform effectively so far, Walden replied, “I think they’ve only taken the first step. People are still getting dress coded for wearing clothes they feel comfortable, confident, and cool in – the building has been hot lately.”

Appomattox Regional Governor’s School is not among the first Virginia high schools to reform their dress code. That title belongs to Roanoke County Public Schools, who updated their dress code terms to be gender neutral in July 2019. The new policy removes words related to skirts, bra straps, and cleavage; instead, it opts to use the phrase “clothing must cover areas from one armpit across to the other armpit, down to approximately 3 to 4 inches in length on the upper thighs.” (source)

This, however, calls into question whether the new dress code rules at Appomattox Regional Governor’s School will be truly different, or whether they will be the same rules reworded to be gender neutral. In the case of Roanoke County Public Schools, the phrase “spaghetti strap tops” has been eliminated, but the picture below shows that thick shoulder straps are still the recommended size. The “fingertip length” rule has also not been changed; the wording of it has just been updated.

This poses another question that has not been addressed thus far; the dress code may change, but will the attitudes of faculty and staff? Not only have the dress codes in Virginia schools have been biased against girls, so have the perceptions of why these rules need to exist; a long-standing claim many teachers have is that boys could be “distracted” by seeing the shoulders, legs, and stomachs of girls.

James Stoneking, a history teacher at Appomattox Regional Governor’s School, mentioned these claims when asked about the faculty’s reaction to the dress code being reformed, saying that some of the faculty at the Governor’s School still believe that visible shoulders could still pose as a distraction. He also reaffirmed that the dress code at the Governor’s School, among other Virginia high schools, has historically been biased against girls and those who present feminine.

When asked on his personal view of the dress code, Stoneking said, “I don’t think in my 21 years here that I’ve ever sent someone to the office about their dress code. I don’t want to be that person scrutinizing a student for what they’re wearing. Stilettos still aren’t okay because you could fall down the stairs and hurt yourself.” 

Dr. Meagan Tenia, the new director of Appomattox Regional Governor’s School, said that as part of her interview, she researched the dress code at the school beforehand. “There were some things in the dress code that just felt a little antiquated to me. Leggings were not allowed unless you had something that’s fingertip length over them. I just thought that was interesting because most school divisions have shied away from that policy.”

Dr. Tenia mentioned that the dress code was originally going to be changed before she was even hired; prior to the 2020-21 school year, a committee was formed with the principal at the time. “Then COVID happened and so it kind of went to the wayside.”

Stoneking was one of the teachers who emailed the new director after she got the job. “I remember over the summer suggesting ‘Hey we should probably look into changing the dress code,’ and I heard it was too late for the new school year.” He mentioned that Dr. Tenia put him on that committee because of him reaching out to her. 

The committee, according to Stoneking, has only met formally once thus far. “We’re still in the early stages of this. I don’t know if they’re going to bring in a student and a parent representative or not, but they are looking into it.”

When asked about what drove her to change the dress code, Dr. Tenia talked about the same gender stereotypes that students had mentioned. “Anyone who reads [our dress code] can see that it is geared more toward what a typical female student might wear as opposed to a typical male student. Several students have asked, ‘How is a shoulder distracting?’ and I’m like, you know what? I don’t know. Great point.” 

According to Dr. Tenia, the dress code amendments will be presented before the board that governs the school, which has 14 representatives from each county that the Governor’s School has students from: Chesterfield, Richmond, Petersburg, Dinwiddie, Colonial Heights, Hopewell, Prince George, Powhatan, Sussex, Surry, Charles City, Amelia, Southampton, and Franklin City.

Since the Governor’s School is preparing their students for college and the workforce, Dr. Tenia wants them to know how to make their own decisions in regard to how they dress. “My goal in all of this is to do what’s right for students.”

Author: Cruz Walden
Last modified: 5/3/2022 3:41 PM (EST)