Does Clovis Unified’s strict dress code help or hurt students?

Novi Alexander was punished for wearing this outfit to Mountain View Elementary School. Clovis Unified’s strict dress code remains controversial.
Novi Alexander was punished for wearing this outfit to Mountain View Elementary School. Clovis Unified’s strict dress code remains controversial.

Clovis Unified parents say that the district’s strict dress code, which has been questioned in the past, adds an extra layer of stress to students’ school day.

New concerns about whether the decades-old policy is fair to all genders has the Clovis Unified school board reviewing the rules, many of which have been in place since the 1970s.

While the district voted in 2014 to allow shorts year-round, eliminating the designation of “shorts days” of the past, schools still are policing what students may wear to class.

For example, Novi Alexander, a sixth-grader at Mountain View Elementary School, wasn’t allowed to participate in recess last week because she wore leggings, a popular form of thick tights, under a pair of shorts.

Shorts are to be worn no shorter than six inches above the kneecap, and leggings are only allowed if the over-garment is four inches above the knee.

Novi’s mother, Celeste Alexander, believed the outfit was suitable, especially since her legs were entirely covered.

But Novi, 12, said an employee at the school told her that the outfit was “a nighttime party outfit.”

“This is a form of shaming,” Alexander said. “She was called out in front of her class and it makes the kids feel like they’ve done something wrong. She’s not going clubbing at 12.”

Alexander said the policy also hurts children’s education – Novi was forced to sit out of class until her mother could leave work to bring her a change of clothes. The policy also can be a financial burden for families, she said.

“At this point, it’s unrealistic. We’re running out of options,” Alexander said. “I’m a single mother – I don’t have the money to go out and buy all new clothes.”

The dress code also forbids apparel depicting professional sports teams, military camouflage, frayed clothing (manufactured or otherwise), athletic wear and fleece sweatpants.

The American Civil Liberties Union stepped in last year when the district refused to let an American Indian student wear a ceremonial eagle feather to his graduation ceremony. The student ultimately was allowed to wear the feather after a Fresno County Superior Court hearing.

Concerns about gender equality have been voiced mostly due to restrictions on male haircuts. Boys are not allowed to grow out their hair, and their earlobes must be visible. Beards are not allowed.

Boys also are not allowed to wear earrings.

KC Rutiaga’s second-grader son recently was sent to the office at Bud Rank Elementary for wearing camouflage pants. District spokeswoman Kelly Avants said camouflage has been forbidden since a gang was affiliated with the pattern in the 1990s.

“He had to wait in the office all morning, and they were brand-new pants. He won’t even wear them at home now. Every morning, he’s nervous, asking if he’ll get in trouble for what he has on,” Rutiaga said. “Generally, there are a lot of good things about the dress code – but not taking a kid out of class and putting the spotlight on them and making them feel bad.”

Erika Ireland, a professor at Fresno State who lives within the Clovis Unified attendance zone, said she has considered not sending her son to school in the district because of the policy.

She once bought her twin niece and nephew matching camouflage outfits – his was green, hers was pink. The boy was punished, but the girl was not.

“As a professor, I have people come to class in pajamas and I don’t think it disrupts anything,” she said. “The problem is with the effort that the district spends on this. Just let the kids be. They need to have some individuality – they might be more empowered and then they’ll learn more.”

Avants said the school board reviews the policy each year, but the district is open about – and proud of – its strict policy.

“It’s very, very specific and every year we talk a lot with people about it. If you come to school out of dress code, you will be expected to get back into dress code. It’s not a secret,” she said. “Most other districts have a dress code, they just might not enforce it, or it might not be as restrictive as ours. It’s very important and it’s something that distinguishes our students when they go out and start applying for jobs. We regularly hear from the community that they can tell a CUSD student when they walk through the door.”

Avants said there is a purpose for each of the restrictions, and that it comes down to protecting the safety and well-being of students.

“We always have a why for what we do. There are a lot of policies that give our students a wonderful environment, but many of those policies are invisible to them. The dress code is one of those things that they actually experience,” she said. “We absolutely stand behind having a dress code and feel it’s very important to promote learning and respect.”

The board will discuss the dress code at a public meeting Jan. 27.

Mackenzie Mays: 559-441-6412, @MackenzieMays