Sunday, October 11, 2009

Do public school students have a "right" to express themselves through dress?

I came across a news story a few days ago, about a high schooler here in GA that has run into trouble for the way he dresses. Apparently Jonathan Escobar, a 16 yr old student transferring from a Florida school, prefers to wear wigs and women’s clothing. This has caused a bit of an uproar in his public high school, and the school officials have told him to dress more normally or stop coming to school.

Escobar objects, stating that how he chooses to dress is simply a part of who he is, and that the school’s ultimatum is discriminatory. The school points out that it is clearly stated in the school handbook that students should “refrain from any mode of dress which proves to contribute to any disruption of school functions”, and Escobar’s manner of dressing has definitely proven distracting to the other students. (Apparently it caused a fight between other students in the short 3 days that Escobar attended classes.)

I am a little divided on this issue. When I first heard about it, I was fully in support of Jonathan Escobar. It takes guts to be that different in High School, especially when you are new and don’t know many people. Whatever Escobar’s reasons for his choices, I think it’s a positive thing to introduce more diversity to the High School setting, and to shake up the social status quo a little bit. Though many disagree with me, I think more awareness and social acceptance of gender issues is in general a very good thing. So when I heard about this story, I was ashamed of the school officials and wanted to learn more about the situation.

It didn’t take long for me to change my thinking in this particular case. While I still support Escobar’s choice of style if that’s what he prefers, I’m not so sure he has a right to dress that way at school. The school officials are correct: the rules very clearly state that any clothing “which proves to contribute to any disruption of school functions” is off-limits, and no matter what the mode of dress may be, if it’s disruptive it has to go. No doubt this school, like every public school I know of, has a dress code that restricts students from wearing clothes that are overly revealing, that have profane images or slogans, or (in many schools) are deemed to be typical of gang activity. Sometimes there is a judgment call to be made, but all students must adhere to these rules, no matter their color, size, gender or sexual orientation. Why, in this case, should Escobar be any different?

I’d say, if Jonathan Escobar wants to continue wearing “skinny jeans and “flats”, that should be just fine. Once the news hubbub dies down it shouldn’t be too distracting to the other students. Probably he can even get away with dramatic makeup, within reason. However, I think the school is completely correct to enforce the dress code, which probably means he has to ditch the wigs and hats. This is school, after all- not a local teen hangout where kids are really free to express themselves through clothing choices. The school’s handling of the matter lacks finesse and sensitivity (they told him to dress “more manly”), but in essence I think they’re on the winning side here. If Escobar wants to express his “Art” through how he dresses, that’s fine anywhere else- but at school, he is a student like any other, and must obey the rules just like the rest of them.

Am I clueless here? After all, what if a muslim student wished to go to school in a full burka, and it caused disruption? (Is that even remotely analogous?) Check out the article to read more on the story, and tell me what you think.

P.S.- I like how casually the school told Escobar that he should homeschool. It might be a bit insensitive, but I think it’s fairly indicative of how widely accepted homeschooling has become in Georgia. Besides, they might be right: an assertive, freethinking alternative individual might indeed be better served by directing their own education rather than trying to squeeze into the public school mold. But that’s just my own bias coming out. ;-)


S said...

When I first heard about this story it was linked with another story about a kid in another state who dressed like a pirate for school. His reason was because he is a practicing member of the church of Pastafarians (Flying Spaghetti Monster) and the clothing is a crucial part of his faith.

Here's the thing for me, if they are going to let Christians wear their crosses and religious tees then burkas are allowed as well as pirate outfits. And it won't be long before there is a church for cross-dressers and that will have to be allowed as well. Or, all religious symbolism can be banned, but I'm sure that will cause an uproar.

I am not sure I agree that it's Jonathan's fault that people can't get over what he's wearing. He's not making a big deal about boys wearing boy clothes though that might be strange to him. I don't know. When I was in school we couldn't even wear shorts LOL. Now I see kids with pink spiked hair and nose piercings. I also see them texting on their phones and smoking, both of which I would find distracting.

In a perfect world I would answer your question with a yes. And in a perfect world it wouldn't matter because the clothes one human wears don't matter to other humans. Oh well. :)

dulcetry said...

Great post, Kit.

I just read the article and frankly, it pisses me off. The boy denies wearing a dress and says he only wore skinny jeans and flats. And if you've been to a mall lately, you'd see it's the latest rage. I might think it's silly and others too, but come on. The chicks trying to get away with as much cleavage as as possibly allowed will probably prove more a distraction than this kid's mascara and flats.

I also saw this was a North Cobb school. Of course anything other outside of the popular-crowd mold is not going to sit well there.

Amy said...

I think this is sickening and is overt discrimination on the basis of gender. Had they told him to dress more like other students, that'd be one thing, but they told him to dress more "manly." If he's gender female, that's wrong.

The upside is the support he's getting. Hopefully the next generation will know better.

Kit said...

@ S: "I am not sure I agree that it's Jonathan's fault that people can't get over what he's wearing."
This was absolutely my response to the story, at first. No it's not his fault. And really, the kids punished should be the ones creating a ruckus, not the kid supposedly "causing" it. However I am wary of this reasoning, sound though it may be. Really when you think about it *no one is responsible for how anyone else feels or behaves*. The problem though, is that our actions do affect other people. I have family members who, when their actions caused pain, would use this as an excuse: "I can't help how you feel about this", they'd say, "only YOU control your own happiness." It's true, but does it excuse the actions that cause the problem? I don't think so. We live and work and learn in a society, where we all have to follow the rules to some extent to maintain order. It's a delicate balance, because the pendulum easily swings too far the other way, and society's rules cause more harm than good. But I think the bottom line in this story is that the school needed to maintain order, and this was the fairest and simplest way they could think of to do so. It's not perfect, but I still support them.

@ Karma Chameleon: Yeah, I admit if I were the school authorities, I wouldn't have let this blow up so large- if they'd simply cracked down on the more flamboyant, attention-getting accessories (ie wigs and hats, which probably aren't allowed anyway) they could have left him alone about the jeans, shoes and make-up. The whole story would have died a quiet death and everyone at school would have settled down after a few days. But, as you noted, it's Cobb county. (~snort~) In a lot of ways, they created their own headache.

@ Amy: I agree that being told to dress more "manly" is pretty terrible. However I think it has a lot more to do with the school authorities' ignorance and inexperience in these matters- it was a low-class way of trying to describe dress that they see as more appropriate. (Wow, I'm being a real snob here.) What I mean is I don't think they were trying to make a comment about homosexual or transgender people. I think they just want the disruption to stop and this was the most direct way they could think of to handle things. I'd have handled it differently, but you simply can't run a school effectively and still make everyone feel great about it. There's plenty of life outside of school. While in school, I think it's reasonable to expect that the rules will be followed. But ultimately, like you, I am really encouraged by the support of his fellow students (and outside the school community). That speaks volumes.