District 209 students wearing their school uniforms. Next year, the polo shirts and khakis will no longer be required. | Courtesy D209

Four years after administrators at Proviso Township High Schools District 209 required students to wear uniforms of polos and khakis, students are now crying against the monotonous sartorial choices, saying the uniforms contradict the district’s commitment to social justice, equity and are enforced unfairly. 

“We understand the need for a dress code, but we also believe that it’s just as important to talk to students about why they follow a certain standard of dress instead of focusing on what they can and cannot wear,” Alex Gomez, a Proviso East High School sophomore and member of the student advisory board that created new school dress recommendations, told Board of Education members at a regular meeting on April 10. 

Gomez said he and his peers believe that a transition from a uniform requirement to a dress code will prompt deeper dialogues about style standards. Other students complain that uniforms have devolved into a tool to perpetuate “racism, classism and sexism.” 

During the April 10 Board of Education meeting, the D209 school board seemed to agree. Members unanimously voted to ditch part of a board policy that required students to wear the uniform described in the Student Handbook. If the board approves the 2018-19 School Handbook, which they will be presented later this year, D209’s new policy on student appearance will still prohibit certain items but mostly require that dress and grooming “not disrupt the educational process, interfere with the maintenance of a positive teaching/learning climate, or compromise reasonable standards of health, safety, and decency.” 

Short skirts, sagging pants and crop tops will still be prohibited, according to a draft of the proposed policy. Things like flip flops, cleated shoes, hats, shower caps and night caps will be banned too.

But it’s a long way from all polos and khakis all the time. 

“This was not a priority for the board,” said D209 board member Nathan Wagner during the April 10 meeting.

“The only reason this happened was because of the students. The students said we don’t want uniforms, we want a dress code,” Wagner said. “They weren’t just complaining. They came up with a solution — an excellent solution and they were part of this process.”

According to a memo about the policy change drafted by district officials, two groups of students “engaged in study and discussion of the student uniform and dress code issues during the current school year.”

Those students included members of the Superintendent’s Student Advisory Board and a group of students from Proviso East who have been studying the uniform and dress code issue under English teacher Ashley Avila. Avila’s class is part of the Competency Based Education pilot at Proviso East, which offers students advanced placement, independent studies and other opportunities beyond the customary classroom. 

Students met with staff members to discuss how the dress code tied to the larger issues of school climate and safety, district officials stated.

“In general, the students were interested in ensuring that such discretion was consistently and fairly utilized. The students understood, however, that room for administrative discretion is needed,” officials said in the memo.

“All participants agreed that a key element to successfully achieving compliance would be to teach students about and encourage a standard of ‘dressing for success,'” they added, “rather than focusing solely on what they were not allowed to wear.”

The policy change came after mounting student complaints about how staff and faculty at Proviso East, Proviso West and Proviso Math and Science Academy were enforcing the uniform policy and how the policy may run counter to the district’s commitments to equity and social justice. 

The uniform policy had been designed to combat perceptions of gang-affiliated clothing and colors and to decrease various other distractions related to student appearance. 

Although the 2014 uniform policy came about after a rigorous, months-long vetting process by a committee that included students from all the Proviso school, and the input of thousands of students and community members through focus groups and an online survey, its undoing was the result of students who, after years of complaining, drafted an alternative dress code policy largely of their own making.

At the meeting, board member Rodney Alexander was so impressed by the students’ work that he voted for the policy change even though he supports the uniform policy.

“I’m 110 percent uniform but because of the adult-like, board-like work [the students] have done, you have to yield to their expressions and their education process and their ability to communicate and put this argument together,” Alexander said. “They’ve pretty much won the argument.” 

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