Ontario school board releases new dress code after students speak out against ‘outdated’ policy

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A new dress code will be implemented at an Ontario school board after students spoke out about a policy they said was outdated and targeted females.

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) released the new guidance on Tuesday, calling the current dress code being used by some schools outdated. They also said the policy disproportionately “targets female-identified students without considering non-binary views and identities.”

Once implemented, students will no longer have to cover up their shoulders, stomachs or bra straps. They will also be able to wear hats and expose their legs, thighs and hips.

The changes come nearly two weeks after officials at Waterdown District High School made an announcement over the PA system reminding students to adhere to a dress code that would see them cover their shoulders and stomachs.

The announcement was made two days after Hamilton police confirmed they were investigating several reports of sexual assault and harassment connected to the school.

“It felt as if they were telling us it was our fault,” Waterdown District High School student Sophie Vivian said at the time.

The principal has since apologized for the announcement, saying “the timing of the announcement was insensitive to the ongoing concerns about sexual assault” and that the school denounces victim blaming.

A number of walk outs were organized by students following the announcement.

HWDSB Trustee Maria Felix Miller told CP24 on Wednesday that the walkouts led to a “constructive” conversation as well as “self reflection.”

“It was the culmination of student trustees communicating and really amplifying the voice of students across the board, letting us know that our outdated policy and the way that it has the potential to be enforced at schools is problematic,” she said. “It caused harm and a review is long overdue.”

Miller said the current dress code singles out female-identifying students and includes a lot of language specific to female clothing.

“What we’re hoping to do in the spirit of the motion is really to make sure that we are allowing our students to express themselves in a way that they feel is most appropriate for how they identify.”

The following rules will soon be in place for students:

  • A top and bottom layer of clothing made of opaque material must be worn
  • Tops that expose arms, shoulders, stomachs, midriff, neck lines, chest and straps are allowed but the nipples must be covered
  • Bottoms that expose legs, thighs, hips and that expose straps and waistbands will be allowed. The groin and buttocks must be covered.
  • Headwear and head coverings such as ball caps, head scarves and durags are allowed but the face must be visible.
  • Dress or headwear required for religious reasons will be allowed
  • Undergarments must not be worn as outerwear
  • Students will not be allowed to wear anything that promotes or symbolizes drugs, alcohol, illegal activity, hate or discrimination, profanity, pornography; that incites violence or harassment; or threatens health and safety
  • Clothing must not depict or display hate speech

The school board also released guidelines for both staff and students about how to deal with a dress code violation, something that student trustee Aisha Mahmound says is just as important.

“It’s not about the guidelines on paper, it’s about the lack of direction and it’s about how it’s enforced and the way that it’s thought and the kind of culture and narrative that surrounds it,” Mahmound said.

Miller agreed with this statement, saying the school board wanted staff to have the tools to enforce a dress code in a respectful manner.

“We want our students to feel safe in their school and part of that safety has to do with the freedom to express themselves, how they personally feel most comfortable.”