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Blog June 10, 2019

Shorts, Tank Tops, Bread and Circuses

Last month, after nearly a decade, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), Canada’s largest, updated its policy on student dress.

This time, in its rationale for changing the policy, the school board acknowledges individual expression, as well as other factors important to a person’s health and well-being.  They even realize that, ”Historically, school dress codes have been written and enforced in ways that disproportionately and negatively impact: female-identified students, racialized students, gender diverse, transgender and non-binary students, students with disabilities, socioeconomically marginalized students and Indigenous, First Nation, Métis, and Inuit students.”

But just in case you are worried that the school board is losing its grip, take heart:

Student dress must: 

Be worn in such a way that all bottom layers cover groin and buttocks and top layers cover nipples, both with opaque material. 

Tops may expose shoulders, stomachs, midriff, neck lines and cleavage. 

Bottoms may expose legs, thighs and hips. 

Undergarments may not be substituted as outwear and, if worn, should be worn beneath a layer of outer wear. 

Straps and waistbands may be exposed however.  

Any headwear that does not obscure the face may be worn.

Are you thinking what I and likely every teenager worth her or his torn jeans is thinking? 

Let’s get creative folks! Can we use strapping tape, string, stickers, pasties or other materials to “obey” the rules and still stir up a storm? As the late Alan Borovoy has said, could we apply a little uncivil obedience? Oh, I believe we can – and likely will.

But let’s not forget the policy also prohibits messages on clothing that could be construed as discriminatory, defamatory, promoting hate, symbolize or reference tobacco, cannabis, alcohol, drugs… The list of ill-defined terms goes on and on.

I think the “new” policy begs the question: Why on earth do we need a dress policy at all? 

Clearly the kid who was suspended for wearing the I AM CANADIAN shirt which displays a can of beer could still be suspended under this policy. The girl who thought her green and leafy shirt that turned out to have a pattern of cannabis leaves could still be sent home to change, the little girls with the GIRLS RULE/ BOYS DROOL shirts can still be asked to turn the shirts inside out. And your Dad’s GUNS and ROSES concert T-shirt? You still can’t wear it to school. It has a gun on it.

When authorities truly believe that giving up control to the governed, in this case students and their adults, will result in chaos and revolution, they often end up looking foolish. In this case, I think the issue is worse than foolishness. 

Many students and families are celebrating this “new policy change” because they can now send kids to school wearing their tank tops and shorts and baseball caps. To many who have been humiliated by being sent to the office for wearing what kids and their peers see as ordinary clothing for their cohort, this comes as a victory and a relief. But to those of us who spend time thinking about how kids learn to live in a democracy, this move looks a lot like the bread and circuses method for citizen control. Since Roman times, those in power have known that if you give the people a small concession, a small appeasement, they will not notice what is really happening. If you provide bread and circuses, then it will be easier to control the masses – and take away their rights.

While the students in the TDSB are celebrating their new-found freedom from a dress code which subscribed to the fashions of the 1970s, they are not reacting to the overly broad and vague language which, in fact, could be limiting their freedom of expression as much as ever, if not more.

In recent times, and for good reason, teachers have begun to worry about the effect of hate on their students. With social media an hourly intrusion on everyone’s consciousness, the likelihood of even very young kids seeing truly ugly, cruel and nasty expression has increased dramatically. And yes, we should be concerned. But do not think for one minute that preventing students from wearing vaguely defined expression and symbols on their clothing will have an effect on changing this problem. Even the strictest uniform policies will not keep kids from seeing what is “out there.”

Like other authorities, school boards need to be seen to be doing their job. The appearance of education can be more alluring than the thing itself.  It is easier to make rules that control expression than it is to teach kids how to use it. When it comes to prejudice, discrimination, violence, illegal behavior and even hatred, teachers have a very important job to do. They need to teach. Instead of worrying about what kids wear, let’s focus on what they learn. Engage them early and often. Find out what they read, see and hear. Don’t take away their freedom of expression - teach them to think critically about it. Real education, not poorly written rules, is the only way to make a difference.