Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

When school clothes lead to suspension

By Ann Hoevel, CNN
March 25, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
In 2014, third-grader Kamryn Renfro shaved her head to show support for a friend with cancer. She was <a href='http://www.cnn.com/video/data/2.0/video/us/2014/03/25/mxp-girl-banned-from-school-for-shaving-head.hln.html'>suspended from school </a>because her Grand Junction, Colorado, charter school has a strict dress code that disallows shaved heads. In 2014, third-grader Kamryn Renfro shaved her head to show support for a friend with cancer. She was suspended from school because her Grand Junction, Colorado, charter school has a strict dress code that disallows shaved heads.
HIDE CAPTION
Style that could get you suspended
Style that could get you suspended
Style that could get you suspended
Style that could get you suspended
Style that could get you suspended
Style that could get you suspended
Style that could get you suspended
Style that could get you suspended
Style that could get you suspended
Style that could get you suspended
Style that could get you suspended
Style that could get you suspended
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Principal: Schools strive to balance education, individuality with dress codes
  • No states have laws that mandate specific dress codes
  • Many parents realize when their kids are violating school dress policies, principal says

(CNN) -- It begins again with every new school year: A student heads to class with a certain T-shirt, a wild hairdo or a new pair of shorts and soon, the phone rings.

Principal G. A. Buie, from Eudora High School in Eudora, Kansas, thinks a lot of parents know what's coming.

"I can't tell you how many times I have called a parent and said, 'Hey, I just want to let you know that I've talked to your son or daughter today and their clothing is inappropriate' for one reason or the other, and the parent says, 'Well I told them when they left the house they were gonna get in trouble,' " Buie said.

School dress codes are nothing new, but from school to school, district to district, state to state, the guidelines are different, and changing. It seems that students and parents -- no matter how well meaning -- challenge the rulebooks time and again.

A Colorado third-grader was suspended after shaving her head to show support for a friend battling cancer, because she'd violated her school's dress code banning shaved heads. Her parents expected the school to make an exception for such a brave display of sympathy.

In 2010, schools around the country banned bracelets that read "I heart boobies." The bracelets were made by nonprofit Keep a Breast Foundation as a light-hearted way to increase breast cancer awareness among young people. In Easton, Pennsylvania, two middle school students were suspended for wearing them, the ACLU of Pennsylvania said, because the school said they could be interpreted as lewd.

In July 2013, a federal appeals court said a Pennsylvania school district couldn't enforce its ban on the bracelets -- they're protected speech because they show support for a national breast-cancer awareness campaign, and don't disrupt school activities.

No state legislatures or education departments mandate uniforms or specific dress codes, according to the Education Commission of the States, an organization that provides nonpartisan information about education policy for state leaders. Still, 21 states and the District of Columbia have passed policies that authorize districts or schools to require uniforms and other laws influence dress codes.

Share your story: How do you personalize your school uniform?

In 2011, Arkansas passed a law that requires districts to prohibit clothes that expose underwear, buttocks or female students' breasts. A California law requires schools allow students to wear hats while outdoors during the school day. Several states require districts to allow parents and staff to weigh in on what school uniforms should be.

"Student appearance, the courts said, can be regulated if it is vulgar, indecent, obscene, insulting or if it carries a message that encourages inappropriate behavior," according to the Education Commission of the States.

School policies are typically regulated by community standards, said Buie, the president-elect of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. Policies that some might see as overly conservative, or even antiquated, can stay on the books for a long time. The old rules don't always work when large school systems grow, combining multiple communities into one district, Buie said, or as families move around, bringing new ideas about what's normal or appropriate.

In some cases, the rules are updated to suit changing norms.

'It wasn't offensive'

Last year, 5-year-old Cooper Barton was told to turn his University of Michigan T-shirt inside-out because it violated school rules. The dress code in Oklahoma City's public schools said students may only wear shirts from Oklahoma colleges and universities. The 2005 policy was put into place to deter gang activity.

"He was a little embarrassed," his mother, Shannon Barton, told CNN affiliate KWTV. "It wasn't offensive. You know, he's 5."

The Oklahoma City school board changed its dress code as a result of the Barton's complaints, KWTV reported, and the Barton family was gifted with tickets to a Michigan football game.

READ: Why some parents dread back-to-school shopping

In almost any school, there are a few things that are likely to guarantee a student a trip to the principal's office, Buie said. Most schools ban clothes that advertise drugs and alcohol, Buie said. Shirts bearing an Einstein anti-war quote and the NRA logo and a machine gun have gotten students in trouble in recent years.

But often times, it's not the crazy shirt, outrageous hairdo or visible tattoo that gets a student in trouble, Buie said. Rather, it's that they don't change the behavior they've been asked to correct.

"I've never been around a school that didn't give a student the opportunity to put on a shirt that's appropriate," he said.

An attitude of defiance and "What are they going to do to me, anyway?" is what leads to trouble.

"They know the policies, they know the rules, but they choose to do it anyway," Buie said.

'A singular goal -- to create a safe environment'

The American Civil Liberties Union says the Supreme Court has affirmed students' rights to express their opinions, as long as they don't "materially and substantially" disrupt classes or other school activities. But it warns on its website that it won't always win a dress code debate: "If you think your school's dress codes and hair codes are unfair and you want to challenge them, be aware that a court probably won't overturn the codes unless the judge finds that they're really unreasonable, or that they're discriminatory."

Stay in touch!
Don't miss out on the conversation we're having at CNN Living. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for the latest stories and tell us what's influencing your life.

Many school districts say dress codes are a matter of order and safety -- and nobody is exempt.

In 2011 in Fremont, Nebraska, sixth-grader Elizabeth Carey was told she couldn't wear her rosary to school because it violated the school's dress code. She said it was an expression of her faith. Steve Sexton, Fremont's superintendent of schools, said local gangs were using rosaries as a symbol of gang affiliation.

"There are those who want to make this an issue about religion when it's about a singular goal -- to create a safe environment for our students," Sexton told CNN affiliate KETV.

Her parents said they were floored. Elizabeth said she wouldn't stop wearing the cross in necklaces or on her clothes.

Wouldn't any parent be upset about their child being punished for wearing a rosary, or dying his hair pink in support of breast cancer research?

Buie said there are plenty of times when a call home to parents results in the recitation of the First Amendment. It's a relatively new challenge for educators, he said.

"Now we have parents that are more likely to support and defend their children as being the ones that are correct," he said. "If we've done something wrong, (parents) are going to come to us and let us know that we need to change or look at doing something differently --15, 20 years ago, that wasn't the case."

Explaining the dress code and why a child was told to change, leave school or even face suspension doesn't stop parents from being offended when their kids are punished, Buie said, or from glaring when he sees them at the grocery store.

While students have the right to free speech, it's the school's job to teach children that they can't infringe on someone else's rights, he said.

"Those are things that are taught in schools," he said, "accepting differences."

What styles would lead to discipline from your school? Do you know the dress code? Share your thoughts in the comments or on Twitter @CNNschools or on Facebook at CNN Living.

CNN's Jamie Gumbrecht contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1814 GMT (0214 HKT)
The death of a Georgia toddler in a hot car raises the question: should government or automakers get involved to prevent accidental deaths from heatstroke inside a car?
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1504 GMT (2304 HKT)
It's not just the 'baby blues.' Postpartum depression affects about 15% of new mothers. Here's what one 'warrior woman' is doing to fight it.
Post your personal essays and original photos, and tell us how it really is.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
What does it mean to run "like a girl"? A new viral video points out that the answer changes depending on whom you ask.
July 1, 2014 -- Updated 2122 GMT (0522 HKT)
CNN reporter Moni Basu lived in the U.S. nearly 30 years before becoming a citizen. Here's what it meant to pledge her allegiance.
July 1, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Her daughter was cut from the team. Her son didn't get into that coveted honors class. It was hard but also helpful. Here's how one mom learned to find lessons in failure.
June 30, 2014 -- Updated 2233 GMT (0633 HKT)
Your be-all, end-all, modern authority on awkward interactions, stressful situations, and elbows on the table.
June 30, 2014 -- Updated 1556 GMT (2356 HKT)
The presence of transgender and gender nonconforming youth at NYC Pride March is latest effort to increase visibility of the transgender community.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 2227 GMT (0627 HKT)
A new ad by the hair care company Pantene asks why women are always apologizing and raises the question of whether women say "sorry" more often than men.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 0048 GMT (0848 HKT)
The American Academy of Pediatrics announced new guidelines this week urging doctors to tell parents to read to their infants and toddlers.
June 28, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
David Martinez grew up thinking he was just an average American kid. When he learned he was undocumented immigrant, it made him re-examine his beliefs about Mexican identity.
June 23, 2014 -- Updated 1747 GMT (0147 HKT)
A new survey says that working fathers, like working mothers, find it hard to balance work and family.
June 20, 2014 -- Updated 1029 GMT (1829 HKT)
Jenny Mollen has no issue tweeting her breastfeeding. The new author talks motherhood and having a (more) famous husband
June 19, 2014 -- Updated 2120 GMT (0520 HKT)
Experts say "mean girl" behavior begins as young as elementary school. Here's how to prevent raising a mean girl.
June 13, 2014 -- Updated 2240 GMT (0640 HKT)
While dads today don't get the same respect and attention as moms, and are often depicted as clueless, they've come a long way, baby.
June 18, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
North West, the 1-year-old daughter of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, is already a social media darling due to her mom's active presence on Instagram. Now the child's new look is sparking some controversy online.
June 18, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
In this celebrity mecca, where the issue usually is "Who's your daddy," actor Jason Patric is engaged in a court fight that raises an even thornier question: What is a daddy?
June 20, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
If you weren't part of the "cool club" in middle school, you may have an extra spring in your step after hearing about a new study, which could be titled "Revenge of the Nerds."
June 11, 2014 -- Updated 2326 GMT (0726 HKT)
Founders of "Black Women Do Breastfeed" say the message behind the image of a breastfeeding graduate has gotten lost in social media chatter.
June 11, 2014 -- Updated 1605 GMT (0005 HKT)
After another mass tragedy, parents are deciding how and what to tell their kids.
June 10, 2014 -- Updated 1112 GMT (1912 HKT)
Matt Logelin's wife died in 2008, hours after giving birth. Just as he became a dad, he also became a single dad -- with all its triumphs and trials. "Every day is Father's Day," he says.
June 5, 2014 -- Updated 1258 GMT (2058 HKT)
Nearly half of U.S. women of childbearing age don't have children. And yet this demographic remains misunderstood, poorly portrayed in the media.
June 5, 2014 -- Updated 2155 GMT (0555 HKT)
How can we be sure our children can truly separate reality from fantasy? What are the warning signs that children are confusing the two?
June 6, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
Kids love them, but parents aren't so sure about bounce houses. Here's how industry experts say parents can keep kids safe while still having fun.
cnn, parents, parenting, logo
Get the latest kid-related buzz, confessions from imperfect parents and the download on the digital life of families here at CNN Parents.
ADVERTISEMENT