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Red spaghetti straps kept a girl out of school and now there's a review of L.A.'s dress codes

About 160 schools in L.A. Unified's central area will be asked to reexamine their dress codes to make sure students are not missing class time because of their clothes.

Roberto Martinez, the district’s central area superintendent, is leading the charge after questions raised about an October incident at the Ramon C. Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts. All the schools in his area, which includes Downtown, will review their dress codes and make sure they align with the district's policy by the end of the school year, according to Martinez.

On a hot fall day, a student named Mary “James” Salazar wore a red dress with thin shoulder straps to Grand Arts, the school’s informal name. She says she was told her clothes were too revealing and distracting, and she refused to wear a sweater from lost and found that was offered to her, or to ask her mother to bring clothes. As a result, James said she spent most of the day in the office instead of learning in class.

Administrators at the school in question either did not respond to multiple requests for comment or, through a district spokeswoman, declined to comment on the incident involving James’ dress code violation.

Martinez said he would ask all the schools in his area to revisit their dress codes after The Times asked him about a discrepancy between the district policy and that of Grand Arts.

“If the girl was actually kept out of class, that was a mistake,” Martinez said. “All school personnel need to know children are not to be kept from class or their instruction.”

He could not comment on the specific incident, citing student privacy.

The L.A. Unified dress code policy states that “Students may not be disciplined or removed from class as a consequence for wearing ‘inappropriate’ attire. However, a student may briefly leave the classroom to change clothes.” Schools are allowed to implement their own dress codes and further restrictions as long as they are consistent with the district’s dress code.

As Martinez conceded, Grand Arts' dress code does seem to contradict that of the district: “If the situation cannot be remedied, students may not be permitted to attend classes and may be sent home,” the Grand Arts dress code says.

What’s in a dress code?

Beyond the question of whether James should have been kept from class, though, is what exactly the dress code can prohibit. 

The district’s dress code specifies that “clothing may be of any fashion, style or design, as determined by the student and his/her parents/guardians.” However, it also says that clothes cannot have images that are “sexually suggestive.” 

The L.A. Unified dress code does not define what “sexually suggestive” means, and it is up to the teachers and administrators at a school site to recognize what is inappropriate or sexually suggestive, said Earl Perkins, the district's assistant superintendent of school operations. He said he doesn't think it's sexist.

The Grand Arts dress code states that, “Proper school attire should not be revealing, lewd, or so extreme as to create a disturbance to the educational environment.” It doesn’t specify whether girls or boys should avoid specific types of clothing, but more restrictions for traditionally female clothing were listed.

“Halter-tops, tank tops and tube tops, unless worn with a covering shirt or jacket. Midriffs may not be showing. Undergarments must not be visible. No short-shorts,” the code says.

Federal law requires that boys and girls be treated equally in schools, so dress codes can’t target one gender more than the other, in writing or in practice, which L.A. Unified’s dress code specifies.

L.A. Unified does not collect data on citations or punishment for dress code violations, Martinez said.

School communities can best determine their own dress code guidelines and expectations, Martinez said. And students should have a say in that, he said, particularly if they feel their treatment is unfair.

“We want [students] to be advocates, we want them to see the world through that social justice lens,” Martinez said.

Rallying for change

That’s how James' former classmate Angel Fabre sees the world. After she heard about what happened to James, Angel decided to organize a movement called “The separation of dress and education,” inspired by the lesson she learned in school about the separation of church and state.

Angel hasn’t been kept out of class because of her clothes, but she said she’s been told her attire was inappropriate.

A month after the incident with James, she and Angel stood outside Grand Arts with friends, holding posters that proclaimed, “I don’t have to be wearing anything in order to think” and “End rape culture.”

Angel grabbed the megaphone, bedazzled in silver and pink rhinestones, and spoke to her peers as they walked by after school.  

“I should be worrying about my test that I have in the next period, I should be worrying about a dance class,” she said, “not my body or if somebody is going to attack me or harass me for it."

sonali.kohli@latimes.com

Twitter: @Sonali_Kohli

L.A. Times staffer Lisa Biagiotti contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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