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What is a school dress code?

A female student in a short skirt. Stock photo by Getty Images.

Back to school time comes with many pleasures and pains. Depending on your sense of style and how you feel about school dress codes, what you have to wear to school every day is either “totally kewl” or a “friggin’ pain.”

The Canadian Constitution gives every province the power to pass laws in relation to education. Each province and territory has a ministry of education, which defines what educational services can be provided. Provinces delegate local governance to school boards and each board oversees a limited number of schools within a specific geographic area.

Every local board requires schools in its district to set up a dress code. Both the Catholic and the public school boards have policies on what its dress code should include.

The Toronto District School Board — the country’s largest — has an “appropriate dress” policy established by each school in consultation with parents that may include a school uniform. The Toronto board, similar to many others, has general guidelines that all individual school dress codes must meet.

For instance, the TDSB requires schools list the principles their dress code is based upon. Examples of include: cleanliness, self-worth, and preservation of a safe learning environment. Moreover, the dress code must not offend the Charter of Rights and Freedoms or other human rights codes. This means the dress code has to be flexible and accommodate religious attires.

The boards also ask that schools set up their dress code in a way that the principal is given discretion to make exceptions when necessary. In Toronto, every school must list what is “inappropriate dress” under its dress code. For instance, if crop tops are not welcome, the dress code should indicate it plain and clear. It may not be enough to say: “no revealing tops.” The idea is to make the dress code as clear as possible so parents and students can easily understand and follow it.  

Dress codes are often challenged, because they may be seen as restricting students’ freedom of expression or religion. It’s important to note that not all forms of expression are permitted in schools. For instance, gang-related clothing, and any attire that shows sexually explicit acts or improper drug use violate codes in most jurisdictions.

Complaints also arise when students feel it’s discriminatory on the basis of their sex. For instance, girls may feel they are subject to stricter rules compared to boys or vice versa.

The adjudicative bodies that hear dress-code complaints — such as school boards, human rights tribunals and courts — must balance the rights and interests of an individual student against that of the public. Even if one’s freedom of expression or religion may be negatively impacted by a school dress code, it may still be okay, because the limits are reasonable and serve bigger and more compelling public objectives. Other times, there may not be a good enough reason for the way a dress code limits a student’s rights and freedoms and that is when the courts will order the school to change its code.

For instance, in 1990, the Ontario the Human Rights Tribunal, in the case of Pandori v. Peel Board of Education, ruled against a school dress code that restricted a Sikh student from wearing a kirpan (ceremonial dagger). The tribunal’s decision was confirmed by the courts, because the kirpan did not raise sufficiently compelling safety concerns.

Be mindful that a school dress code may include a mandatory uniform. Most public schools have a dress code, but do not require a particular uniform. Most catholic schools, conversely, require a uniform that is appropriate under the dress code.

In Toronto, if a public school wants to implement a uniform, it has to receive the input from at least 80 per cent of “all” parents and guardians. A minimum of 70 per cent of the participating parents must vote yes to the uniform for the school to implement it. Once a uniform has been approved in one of Toronto public schools, it has to stay in effect for a minimum of three years.

Most boards allow parents to have a say. If you are not happy with what you see as a parent, obtain a copy of the school dress code and consult the applicable school’s policies. Make your concerns known whether you find a code too restrictive or too flexible.

The same goes for students. Dress codes are meant to help create an environment that will encourage learning and self-growth. It’s important to know your school’s policies on this topic. This way you can have constructive talks with your teachers and principals if you do not agree with certain aspects of it.

Read more:

TDSB Appropriate Dress policy

Pandori v. Peel Board of Education