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A Houston school's dress code for parents teaches kids sexism, elitism and intolerance, not respect

School administrators have the ability to foster community around our most precious resource — our children. Or they can do stuff like this.
Image: Carlotta Outley Brown
Carlotta Outley Brown, who took over as principal at James Madison High School during the current school year, becoming the school's fourth principal in five years, on April 18, 2018.Marie D. De Jesus / Houston Chronicle via AP file

Day in and day out, we hear about school communities who struggle to drum up the necessary support from students' parents to achieve their goals, be they academic, financial or extracurricular. Who, in this day and age, would then consider it wise to put significant restrictions on the parents who step up for their children?

The answer, apparently, is Principal Carlotta Outley Brown, Houston high school principal who crafted a dress code for parents, declaring it “necessary to establish high standards for students.” The move expressly prohibits anyone wearing hair rollers, pajama pants, torn jeans, sagging pants or shower caps and bonnets — a covering that many Black women use to protect their hair during hours-long treatment processes — from picking up their children or meeting with school officials, even in emergency situations. In addition, wearing leggings, revealing shirts, short skirts and anything otherwise appearing to be even marginally suggestive will result in a parent being barred from the premises until they are in accordance with the new dress code.

“We are preparing our children for the future and it begins here,” wrote Brown in a letter addressed to parents. “We want them to know what is appropriate and what is not appropriate for any setting they may be in.”

Not only does this disrespect the parents and their desire to advocate for their community and their children, but it also weakens the strength of whatever community does desire to come together around these children.

As Brown rightly acknowledges, a child’s parents are always their first teachers. But we must acknowledge that children benefit from being protected and guided by the largest village possible — and undermining that by discouraging parents from showing up because they aren’t dressed according to an antiquated view of what “respectable” looks like only reduces the variety of positive influences that can change a child’s future. It also demeans the voices and contributions of the parents who are there, implying that they can only be seen as valuable if they dress a certain way.

The policy also blatantly targets women: Demanding that they be covered up in order to access their own children reads explicitly like a principal trying to mold a community to her own sensibilities, instead of trying to teach children to be thoughtful about how to show up in the world and how to treat those who show up differently than they do. In a social climate in which women who dress across a spectrum of appropriateness — from conservatively to scantily clad — face a still-untold amount of sexual harassment and hurdles to professional advancement, the desire to cover up every semblance of a woman’s body so that they can care for their children is wrong.

Furthermore, when we consider how those who are not of the suburban persuasion are constantly mistreated, maligned and devalued, we do ourselves and our children a disservice by encouraging kids to perpetuate this harmful behavior. The lesson they learn should not be that those who show up different from our expectations should be turned away; the lesson should be that they deserve equal, fair and empathetic treatment in every way.

Instead of trying to be the public servant who encourages people to come as they are, utilizing every parent to help her build an empowering community with the limited resources so many schools have, Brown has opted to create barriers that limit the kind of volunteering that parents can do.

Contrast Madison High's exclusionary focus with the procedures in place at LeBron James’ I Promise School in Akron, Ohio. A public school that explicitly sought out the students who needed the most support, the I Promise school embraces the belief that “We are Family” — a nod to a classic Sister Sledge song — in word and deed, both with its students and their families.

“It took me coming here to realize what family even is,” stated one of the school’s parents, after acknowledging how unsupported she’d previously been in schools as a single parent. “When I come here every day, I know it’s going to be OK.”

School administrators have the ability to foster unparalleled forms of community around our most precious resource: Our children. Public schools need advocacy that can only come when we all band together and learn how to fight and who to fight in a way that speaks to our individual communities, regardless of attire. The effectiveness of that community is squandered when we pretend the thing that limits a community’s access to success is something as meaningless as clothing.

When we put limitations on how parents are allowed to show up for children, we not only diminish the potential of our parent community, we also blatantly disrespect the parents who come — when they can, however they can — to support the school and its intended goals. We teach our children that the only people who deserve respect and appreciation are the ones who come dressed according to an outdated and frankly patriarchal standard of respectability. We pass on ideals that have ultimately been used to harm communities like ours, instead of reinforcing the belief that creativity and innovation can come from anywhere, and it deserves respect.

Our children need to learn what it means to fight "respectability" and advocate for each other. Fighting each other and advocating for respectability, as this policy encourages, only undermines the community that loves them the most.