Radio — A big win against discriminatory school dress codes

Kate Curtis is a high school teacher in the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) and one of the co-founders of an organization called the End Dress Codes Collective. Scott Neigh interviews her about the problems with school dress codes, and about the major policy change that happened this spring at the TDSB thanks to the work of their collective and many others.

Until the recent change, each school in the TDSB – the largest school board in Canada – had its own dress code, developed within a framework provided by the board. The preamble of that framework indicated that dress codes had to abide by relevant human rights documents, and it asked each school to do two things: to define appropriate clothing and to ban gang-affiliated clothing.

The dress codes at different schools varied a great deal in their approach and content. Yet students in Toronto reported experiences quite similar to students across North America: Dress codes and how they are enforced often lead to a wide range of discrimination and barriers.

Overwhelmingly, in how they are written and how they get applied, dress codes are sexist. Most of them disproportionately target girls, often shaming them for their bodies and mobilizing the victim-blaming rhetoric of rape culture. They often get used in ways that target students on queer and trans spectrums for how they do gender, particularly those who are feminine. They also get used against racialized students. Black and Indigenous youth are particularly likely to have their modes of dress read as threatening or inappropriate, and in the Toronto case, the ban on clothes that are supposedly “gang affiliated” often just boiled down to targeting Black street wear.

Overall, dress codes create circumstances in which certain students get surveilled and regulated, often along axes on which they are already marginalized, and they force teachers to step out of their pedagogical role and into the role of doing that surveillance and enforcement. For at least some students who already face barriers, dress codes can make school environments more hostile and can disrupt learning.

The End Dress Codes Collective emerged in part from the Status of Women Committee of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation local in Toronto, as well as from a student activist group called Project Slut. In 2015, the latter won a multi-year campaign to get rid of the dress code at Central Tech high school – discussed at the time on an episode of Talking Radical Radio — and a couple of the youth in the group were keen to take that victory board-wide.

The collective started out with an educational focus, to raise awareness about the discriminatory nature of dress codes. They did lots of presentations and workshops. They also prepared a guide based on the victory at Central Tech for people wanting to challenge dress codes in other schools.

Over time, they became more involved in advocacy aimed at getting the TDSB to change their policy around dress codes. A pivotal moment came when the collective had the opportunity to present to the TDSB’s governance and policy committee, which helped prompt a formal review of the existing dress code policy. The collective continued its education and advocacy work, and actively intervened in the board’s consultation process. In the spring of 2019, the TDSB passed a new student dress policy that represents a major victory for the collective and for the many others who have organized against discriminatory school dress codes in Toronto.

The new policy is clear, uniform, and focused on what such a policy actually needs to do while avoiding the discriminatory aspects found in most dress codes. Curtis thinks it is a vast improvement, but the real test will be how students experience it once it is rolled out in September. The collective intends to keep a close watch, and to intervene when necessary with advocacy and support for students. As well, Curtis hopes, they will be able to begin the work of sharing the lessons from the victory in Toronto with students, parents, and teachers challenging discriminatory dress codes in jurisdictions across the country.

Image: Used with permission of the End Dress Codes Collective.

Theme music: “It Is the Hour (Get Up)” by Snowflake, via CCMixter


Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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