Mary Colussi, 15, is not against dress codes. For 10 years, the Gloucester resident wore a uniform to school every day as a student at the St. Ann School, a Roman Catholic school in her hometown that closed last year.
Then, earlier this month, the principal of Rockport High School announced that the school would be cracking down on leggings and other tight pants already prohibited by the dress code. And Colussi, a Rockport High sophomore who attends through the school-choice system, was among those troubled by the proclamation.
“He told us we were being distracting to the male students,” Colussi said. “That was what upset a lot of us, not the fact that leggings were banned.”
The stepped-up enforcement, which resulted in one student being sent home from school, brought questions and concerns from students, parents, and the news media. A few days later, facing a significant outcry, the administration backed off of its plan to strictly enforce the dress code, Rockport Superintendent of Schools Rob Liebow said.
“We went back to the previous low level of enforcement of that particular clause,” he said.
The administration has also put together a 14-member committee of students, faculty, parents, and School Committee members to review the dress code and make recommendations, principal Philip Conrad said.
He spoke about the committee, but deferred further comment to Liebow.
“The mission of the committee is to review our dress code . . . and propose either a new dress code or changes to the dress code,” Conrad said.
But these steps did not end the controversy, and some students are still upset at how the matter was handled in the first place.
The dispute began when students attended an assembly about choosing courses for next year. At the end of that meeting, Conrad dismissed the boys from the auditorium and told the girls that the school planned to more rigorously enforce the portion of the dress code that bars “leggings worn as pants.”
As outlined in the school handbook, the dress code urges students to avoid clothes that are “inappropriate in the business and workplace as well as the school,” such as sunglasses, hats, revealing tops, baggy pants, and short skirts.
While many teenage girls embrace stretchy leggings and clingy yoga pants — clothing they say is unbeatably comfortable — many adults look askance at the trend. During the past year or so, as the popularity of the tight pants has spiked, schools in California, Minnesota, and Vermont have announced bans on leggings.
The leggings rule was being specifically reinforced at Rockport High because such pants are too “distracting” to the boys, Conrad said, according to several students present.
Liebow contends that the word “distracting” was not aimed at male students and did not carry a “sexual connotation,” but was meant in a more general sense.
“I think they are misinterpreting the word ‘distraction’ and drawing a conclusion that isn’t necessarily what’s meant,” the superintendent said.
The boys were sent from the room because they were being loud and disrespectful when Conrad began talking about leggings, Liebow said.
But students who were present say the boys were dismissed before the topic of the dress code was raised.
Many of the girls say they felt the female students were being singled out and blamed for the boys’ perceived reactions, a dynamic they say is sexist.
“I was angry,” said junior Katherine Maddox, 16. “I don’t think we should have to change to try and control their behavior.”
Some also felt that the announcement was unfair to the boys, implying that they lacked maturity, self-control, and consideration.
“The administration was assuming things they shouldn’t have,” said senior Katharine Boucher, 17. “I don’t feel like the boys even have a voice in this.”
The day after the announcement, one girl was sent home to change her clothes and a total of 10 girls were asked to modify their outfits to adhere to the policy, according to a letter sent by Conrad to parents of Rockport High students. By the weekend, the administration had reversed course and decided to back off of the plan.
Liebow acknowledged that Conrad may have made some mistakes in his initial presentation of the policy. Ideally, Liebow said, the announcement would have been made to both boys and girls, and would have not targeted one clothing item so specifically.
“It made it look like he was singling the girls out,” the superintendent said. “In a perfect world, what the principal would have done is stress all of the dress code.”
The dress code committee planned to meet for the first time last week. The goal is to have any changes to the policy in place for next year’s student handbooks, though it is possible some might take effect before this school year is out, Conrad said.
Colussi said she appreciates the good intentions behind the plan, but thinks it still fails to address the major problem: the way the announcement was made.
“I think they should apologize to the girls for assuming we would dress inappropriately, and they should apologize to the boys for assuming they would catcall us in the hallway,” she said.
“Ideally, I would like the administration to explain to us why the assembly was handled the way it was handled.”
Sarah Shemkus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.