Essex High School needs to review dress code, says sexual assault crisis centre

The dress code at a high school in Essex needs to be reviewed by administration to make sure students are being sent the right message, according to the head of the Sexual Assault Crisis Centre of Essex County.

Unfair to say the way girls look contributes to inappropriate behaviour by boys, director of centre says

Lydia Fiorini is the executive director of the Sexual Assault Crisis Centre of Essex County. (Jonathan Pinto/CBC)

The dress code at a high school in Essex needs to be reviewed by administration to make sure students are being sent the right message, according to the head of the Sexual Assault Crisis Centre of Essex County. 

An Essex District High School student was suspended this week for protesting the school's dress code, after she said several of her friends were sent home or told to change because their bra straps were showing.

"I'm really proud of these young women for taking a stand," said Lydia Fiorini, executive director of the crisis centre. 

Fiorini said that the school administration needs to review the dress code.

"I think they really clearly have a point to say, you know, we've gone a little too far and to assume that the way we look is contributing to male's desire and male's sexual inappropriateness is not fair," she said.

No formal requests for change

CBC News contacted the Greater Essex County District School Board but was told they were too busy for an interview. 

Earlier this week, Mike Hawkins, the school principal, said he cannot speak about specific incidents involving a student but did say the dress code "is clearly outlined," and it is "not a male or female issue."

He said there hasn't been a proposal to change the dress code in the four years he's been at the school.

The dress code states: "Students are expected to take pride in their appearance by dressing cleanly, neatly and appropriately. In general, all clothing worn to school must be conducive to an academic environment."

It says that clothing with offensive material cannot be worn and that "the administration will decide whether or not students are adhering to the dress code standards."

Is a dress code needed?

"I think the administration really needs to go back and really review their policy and really think about what is the purpose of their policy," Fiorini said. 

"And if the purpose is related to their concern about women being distractions to boys, then it is a policy that needs to be gone."

Fiorini said she's spoken with teachers and administrators who believe that when female students dress a certain way the male students can't pay attention in class.

Mallory Johnston is protesting her school's dress code. 0:16

"We're really saying to young women that you're responsible in case you get raped because of the way you dress."

She said suspending the student who protested the dress code is going too far.

"When you want young people to have opinions and you want people to be able to think for themselves, we can't then punish them for those thoughts."

Education consent and respect

The Sexual Assault Crisis Centre of Essex County has been working with high school students in the region so they understand issues surrounding consent.

"We're working with educating our young men and our young women about the fact that it's about consent and it's about choice making. It has nothing to do with how you dress," said Carol Branget, a counsellor at the centre. 

"And then we see these issues that come back again and it feels like we've taken a few steps backwards."

Carol Branget works with high school students to teach them about consent and respect. (Stacey Janzer/CBC)

She said dress codes add confusion to a discussion that isn't easy to have for some students. 

"Talking about consent is never as easy as it looks like to begin with," said Branget.

'Respect and consent'

She teaches that consent is not connected to the clothing a student wears. When students hear that their clothing is inappropriate it might send the wrong message, said Branget.  

"It gives that idea … that guys can't control themselves because a girl is wearing a skirt that's too short or showing her bra straps at school."

For her, moving forward means evolving the discussion beyond a girl's appearance. 

"We don't want to get caught up with what it means if a girl's bra strap is showing. We really want to put the emphasis on respect and consent."