Nan Austin

May 28, 2014

Cracking the code: Schools outlaw colors, numbers and letters

Kids’ summer dress code calls for staying cool, but school dress codes are focused on keeping everyone cool. Reading the long list of what campuses ban gives a chilling peek into what for most of us is another world.

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As summer begins for schoolkids, shorts and T-shirts become the dress code of choice.

Bright red and royal blue, outlawed during the school year here, will be back on backs, especially as July Fourth approaches. It’s a sobering thought that wearing these most patriotic of colors could target someone for a beating or worse if worn on the wrong block at the wrong time.

And to think, my grandmother’s generation just worried about wearing white after Labor Day.

In the day of the micro-mini, my sisters and I were guilty of hiking up our skirts past the kneeling length of 4 inches. Short shorts showing undies or gaping cleavage have replaced the knee ruler as today’s modesty measure.

This train of thought follows reading an opinion piece by Matt Haney, commissioner on the San Francisco Unified School District board, in EdSource. Haney wrote in support of the board’s unanimous vote to update its dress code to eliminate the prohibition on hats and head coverings.

“With all the challenges that we face in getting students to feel welcomed, comfortable and safe at school, why would we set up new barriers that push some students away, particularly students of color?” he asks.

“Despite the hat ban, hats are still common in many schools, often leading to consequences such as referrals, detentions, suspension or incidents of ‘defiance’ that take time away from both teachers and students. We should ask whether it is worth spending the precious time of teachers and school authorities on enforcing minor rules that may have no clear relationship to the school’s educational mission, while often keeping students out of class and pushing them further away,” Haney writes.

He makes a fair point. San Francisco schools still can enact campus dress regulations, however, and those with gang problems could reinstate a ban on certain colors of hats.

The change seems destined to become a freedom best enjoyed by schools in higher-end neighborhoods. Campus-by-campus policies will become a virtual map of gang prevalence across the city.

The problem of parading allegiances goes far beyond colors, of course, with inventive teens finding ways around every ban. Reading the Modesto City Schools dress code gives a chilling peek into what for most of us is another world.

Outlawed clothing includes anything with gang emblems, symbols, bandannas and sports apparel from University of Nevada, Las Vegas; University of Nebraska; the New York Yankees; Oakland Raiders; and San Francisco Giants. Red or blue shoelaces are nixed.

Gangs also claim numbers. On the outlawed list are hairstyles that include three braids or hair bunches with blue binders, or four braids or bunches with red binders. Notched eyebrows indicating 13 or 14 apparently showed up on enough defiant young faces to rate their own rule. Area codes 209, 510 and 415 are a problem.

Not even letters are safe. Though still allowed on pages, N and S on shirts have become suspect.

In a wrinkly world, T-shirts with creases cause alarm. Split pant cuffs spell trouble, and hats are banished except for some versions worn outside during a rainstorm. And to be clear, hats include “hair nets, bandannas, doo-rags or shower caps.”

Hair nets and shower caps? Seriously, how does any self-respecting tough guy make a stand in those, even with notched eyebrows?

On principle, I avoid wearing red or blue – or shower caps, for that matter – when I go to school events and classrooms. The color ban means some of my favorite clothes gather dust in the closet, at least until summer.

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