In 2016, students at a San Francisco middle school took part in a participatory process after recognizing bias in the school’s dress code. The students conducted surveys to determine current perceptions and were successful in rewriting the dress code to be more inclusive.
Problems and Purpose
In 2016, eighth grade students at The San Francisco School Middle School read Liz Prince’s graphic novel “Tomboy” in their humanities class. Their class discussion about the novel, which involved topics such as gender identity and societal norms, ultimately sparked conversation about a relevant topic in their own lives—their school dress code. After analyzing and studying the current dress code at The San Francisco School and recognizing gender bias and inconsistencies with the school’s mission, they decided to conduct some research. Their research and investigation sought not only to change the dress code, but to do so as a means of making their school truly diverse, nondiscriminatory, and progressive.
Background History and Context
The San Francisco School was founded in 1966 and prides itself on being one of the area’s oldest co-ed independent schools. One of the school’s founding principles is diversity; they strive to create an environment “where diversity of the student, parent/guardian, and professional community has a direct and positive impact on the overall quality of the student learning experience." This is demonstrated in the rewriting of the dress code. The students who took action to change their school’s dress code did so using a participatory process in order to gain multiple and diverse opinions from fellow students and staff at The San Francisco School. They wanted the dress code policy to reflect the beliefs and perspectives of students in an inclusive and democratic way, and therefore used a participatory process. The school’s dress code before students took action to change it in 2016 was drafted by students of the school more than ten years prior. This shows how the school values student voice and has a history of student-led change.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
Teachers and administrators from The San Francisco School provided students the space and opportunity to take part in this process. The students gained initial support from their humanities teacher, but the bulk of this participatory action was initiated by students themselves. Two individual students took the lead, and eventually The San Francisco School’s Student Council joined in on the efforts.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Because of the nature of this participatory process, participants were not necessarily selected to engage in the problem solving methods. Rather, they took initiative themselves to engage in and initiate the process of amending the dress code. Therefore, the participant recruitment for this process began as a self-selection process. Anyone who wanted to join the effort to transform the dress code was able to. Eventually, the Student Council, as a governing body that seeks to represent the school as a whole, became involved. The Student Council students were previously chosen based on the organization’s requirements and procedures.
Methods and Tools Used
Two students decided to create an online survey via SurveyNuts to poll fellow students and teachers/administrators about their perceptions of the current dress code. This initial data collection was then followed by further questioning, meetings with school administrators, and research on other schools’ dress code policies. The final steps in the rewriting of the school dress code were conducted by the San Francisco School’s middle school student council.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
After reading “Tomboy” in class and subsequently discussing the school dress code, students sought out more information about the current policy, focusing on language, enforcement, and consequences of violating it. Two individual students took the lead on creating a survey in which they polled both students and staff within the school about their thoughts on the current dress code. They used these analyzed survey results to present findings to staff and the student council. Initial survey results found that 63% of teachers and 78% of students believed the dress code was biased against women. Additionally, the students met with the heads of the school. They continued to receive feedback, field questions from all parties, and research other schools’ dress codes. The purpose of researching other dress codes was to gain knowledge about best practices and ultimately use these findings to develop a new dress code policy for The San Francisco School.
The proposal the students developed, mainly through the channels of the Student Council, was written and revised many times before being finalized for a school vote of approval. Finally, the proposal for a new dress code, which students referred to as dress guidelines, passed and took effect in the school. The proposal passed with a vote of 18-2 among student council members, and subsequently passed at the school level as well. Ultimately, the proposal superseded the current dress code at the San Francisco School. The new and improved dress code guidelines mandate training for teachers and staff, so that any violations to the dress code are handled in a way that does not shame or sexualize students.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
As previously mentioned, these middle school students were initially influenced by the graphic novel “Tomboy” as well as their humanities teacher, in whose class they first read the book that spurred a dress code discussion. Furthermore, students felt empowered and entitled to make a change because they discovered that the current dress code was also previously written by students. Their reasoning for taking action was that the dress code directly affects them, so they should be able to have a say in amending the current policy. The resulting policy, labeled as a dress guideline, emphasizes “safety, common sense, and anti-hate speech." The students who took part in this participatory process sought out to make a change to their dress code and actually did affect policy changes in their school. Additionally, the students’ actions paved the way for continued dialogue between students and staff at the San Francisco School about important topics such as gender equality.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
This process resulted in direct policy change within The San Francisco School. Students led an initiative to change their biased dress code, garnered support and feedback from fellow students and administrators, and ultimately made real change that resulted in a more progressive, diverse, and fair school environment. Though the students did ultimately transform their school’s dress code through a participatory process, they still have areas of improvement. The process started in one class and with just two students, meaning that the input and decisions that took place at the beginning may have not been as inclusive or encompassing as they could have been. Overall, students and other supporters were pleased with their successful efforts to abolish the old dress code and enact a new, more inclusive, less biased dress guideline policy.
 Yi-Martin, M. & The San Francisco School. (2016). Identifying oppression and gender bias in a school dress code. Retrieved from http://yparhub.berkeley.edu/in-action/san-francisco/
 The San Francisco School Student Council. (2016). SFS dress code proposal 2016. Retrieved from http://yparhub.berkeley.edu/in-action/san-francisco/
 The San Francisco School. (2018). Our story. Retrieved from https://www.sfschool.org/our-story/
The original submission of this entry was written by Allison Gent, a Master of Public Service candidate at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, and then edited. The views expressed in the original submission are those of the authors, editors, or cited sources, and are not necessarily those of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.