Winnipeg schools, students struggle with dress code debate

CBC's Information Radio heard from a student, a teacher and an administrator on what they think is important in the school dress code debate.

'It made me feel ashamed of myself, I was kind of blaming myself for it,' says Caroline Wisneski

"I guess we look at it from the point of view of what we're trying to achieve with high school education or education in general - and that is reflect the community standard," says a Winnipeg superintendent. (Shutterstock)

This week a teenager in Moncton, N.B. took a stand against what she called "unjust standards" of her school's dress code.

It's a debate going on behind the doors of many schools and CBC's Information Radio had a three-part discussion Friday with an 18-year-old female student, a high school teacher and a superintendent. 

The student: Caroline Wisneski

Caroline Wisneski, now 18, remembers running into problems with school dress codes as early as Grade 8, when her shorts did not meet the one-hand-above-the-knee length requirement.

At 13, she was told her shorts create a distraction to her male comrades.

"It made me feel ashamed of myself. I was kind of blaming myself for it. I thought, 'Oh, I must be causing a disruption in our education' and I did feel bad about it" she said.

It's time to start really breaking down those barriers and that systemic sexism.- Dominique Reynolds

In the time since, Wisneski has come to the conclusion that school dress codes are "a little bit silly."

"I think really what they're trying to get at is that they want students to be in a distraction-free environment. And I think, really, students are distracted all the time. Have you ever met a high schooler who can keep focus seven hours a day?"

Wisneski thinks the solution lies in better education of both male and female students through gender studies courses.

"I do consider myself a self-respecting woman and I do wear short shorts from time to time, and you know, I wear them because they're in fashion right now — it's what everyone else is wearing and because it's hot out."

As for situations such as the one in New Brunswick, Wisneski said she thinks schools are sending the wrong message. 

"It's saying that the boys' education is more important than the girls," she said. "It's not really what they're trying to imply, but it's what the message is made out to be."

The teacher: Dominique Reynolds

Dominique Reynolds is a teacher at a Winnipeg high school that has no dress code currently in place. The school leaves it up to the discretion of teachers to determine if and when they should intervene in students' clothing decisions.

Reynolds told Information Radio there has been a case or two in the past where she thought "that's not appropriate for school" and has chosen to engage students in discussions about what they wear.

"And I thought, 'Well, maybe that's just my judgement,' because they were describing feeling good about themselves and their bodies and they liked how they looked. And to go up to them and tell them that, 'you know, you shouldn't be wearing that at school' would actually be detrimental to their self-esteem," Reynolds said.

The other aspect of the debate Reynolds said made her feel uncomfortable was that she only ever felt compelled to have the conversation with female students.

"They're just following the trends and trying to look good and feel good about themselves," Reynolds said.

"It's time to start really breaking down those barriers and that systemic sexism."

Reynolds said she does not feel that clothing decisions are taking away from the learning of her male or female students. 

She does take into consideration the age of the student she is approaching about wardrobe choice. Reynolds explained that the older the student, the more comfortable Reynolds is letting them make their own choices. 

The administrator: Ron Weston

"I guess we look at it from the point of view of what we're trying to achieve with high school education or education in general — and that is reflect the community standard," Ron Weston, superintendent of the St. James-Assiniboia School Division, said Friday.

He thinks the discussion should revolve around what is appropriate and in what context, to prepare students for the next stage of their life, whether it be the workforce or post-secondary education.

"It's a tough discussion to have. Everybody today should go out and hug a high school teacher or administrator because this is just an impossible situation," Weston said.

In his school division, Weston said they use vague terminology in their dress code so that schools are free to use their own discretion on a case-by-case basis. 

​"I was talking to a guidance counsellor recently who said the school photographer that was in doing pictures refused to take pictures of a young lady because he felt it would be child pornography if he took that picture and gave it to her. So where is the line? And that's really the discussion that has to take place," Weston said.

Weston added that he thinks the argument that the boys are the problem is the wrong conversation to be having.

"We have to start having the discussion about what's appropriate and in what context is it appropriate. Not around oversexualizing girls' images and having them feel that they should be ashamed of what they're wearing," Weston said. 


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