With all the challenges that we face in getting students to feel welcomed, comfortable and safe at school, why we would we set up new barriers that push some students away, particularly students of color? In a city known for our eclectic style and love for our sports teams, where residents struggle to stay here, why are we creating blanket bans and punishing students for clothing that many of us use regularly to express our identity and local pride?
These are some of the questions that the San Francisco Board of Education considered this week when we voted unanimously to update and modernize our student dress code policies by eliminating outdated aspects of our dress code and lifting a district-wide prohibition on hats and head coverings.
With the passage of the district’s new policy, students’ rights to wear a hat outdoors and for religious reasons will be protected, and school communities will have the opportunity to develop their own dress standards by taking into consideration the voices of students, parents and staff.
Teachers will no longer have to chase students around the hallways enforcing a hat ban simply because it is district policy, and we will ensure that students aren’t suspended or sent home for dress code violations.
Creating schools where students feel welcome and connected, where they can safely express their identity, is not a minor issue, particularly for our most vulnerable students.
Restrictions on hats and head coverings deserve special attention. There is a broad range of reasons that students may want to cover their heads, some religious, some cultural, some economic and some deeply personal.
A middle school student told me about how there are some days, such as when she had been unable to get her hair cut, that she would either skip school to avoid embarrassment or cover her head and risk punishment. A high school student recounted to me how he often felt that his school only noticed him when he did something wrong, and the first thing he’d hear from school staff when he walked in the doors was “Take your hat off.”
Despite the hat ban, hats are still common in many schools, often leading to consequences such as referrals, detentions, suspension, or incidents of “defiance” that take time away from both teachers and students. We should ask whether it is worth spending the precious time of teachers and school authorities on enforcing minor rules that may have no clear relationship to the school’s educational mission, while often keeping students out of class and pushing them further away.
Some see hat bans as related to teaching students professionalism and respect. Even if it is unfair, we live in a world where people who wear hats, particularly baseball hats, may be judged as threatening or unprofessional in some contexts. Others have brought up a perceived relationship between hats and gang activity.
These are questions that should be considered by school communities in deciding what works best for them. In schools with gang problems, administrators might want to keep hats of certain colors out. Teachers might also want to set specific rules for their classrooms. Still, we should reflect on the degree to which schools may be reinforcing societal double standards that treat young people, particularly young people of color, differently from others.
Lifting a ban on hats is not going to solve the deep challenges facing our public school system. On its own, this policy change won’t close the racial opportunity gap, or bring more funding to the schools. But what it can do is help teachers and students to focus on what matters most: fostering the respect, understanding, support and self-expression that all students need to be successful.
Matt Haney is a commissioner on the Board of Education in the San Francisco Unified School District. He is also a fellow and a lecturer at the Stanford Design School (d.school) and the former executive director of the UC Student Association.
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