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Canadian Rockies Public School division maintains dress code for students

While administration at CRPS maintains a procedure that directs students to "dress appropriately" is a broad direction for principals to follow, handbooks tells students at one local high school to dress in a way that is not a "distraction" to others and to "please respect the modesty of yourself and others."
Canmore Collegiate High School
Canmore Collegiate High School

BOW VALLEY – The Bow Valley's public school division will maintain and continue to enforce a dress code for its students in the 2020-21 school year.

The dress code, which is contained in the administrative procedures for the Canadian Rockies Public School division, was reviewed recently by administration and the decision was made to keep it in place unchanged, according to director of learning services Lisa Blackstock.

Blackstock presented the one-sentence administrative procedure to the board of trustees in June, sparking one elected official to try to have a conversation about the issue of policing young women's bodies in the school setting. 

"Who determines what is appropriate?" asked board chair Carol Picard. "When kids walk through the door in September, are appropriateness or inappropriateness rules very clearly spelled out for them?"

A copy of the administrative procedure that was provided to the board of trustees as part of its agenda package was not made available to the Outlook upon request. The procedure, contained in the draft minutes of the June 24 meeting, as of Sunday (July 26), were also not yet publicly available. 

The Outlook was told the administrative procedure states: "students should dress appropriately for class and other activities."

Superintendent Chris MacPhee responded to Picard's interest in having a conversation about the dress code by reinforcing that it is something that schools have always dealt with, and always will.

"Respectfully Carol, our principals have been dealing with this for decades and they will, in some cases I am sure, take a student aside and have a conversation with them," MacPhee said. 

"If it is a shirt that has some vulgar sayings on it, or something ... I can tell you this is an issue our principals have dealt with at this level forever." 

Former Banff Community High School principal Steve Greene also responded to the chair's request to better understand how young bodies are being managed by administration at local schools. 

Greene said it is a school-level decision and the person who decides what is appropriate is the principal of the school, but they work with the students, teachers and parents when these types of situations arise. 

"It is our decision on how we ensure the safety of our kids is met and if they are feeling comfortable being in the school," he said. "It is not just a person's dress – it is the people around them and how they are impacted."

Greene said the dress code is about creating a space where all students feel comfortable and safe, adding it requires a lot of sensitivity and understanding to manage.

"It is a delicate one and you need to work through it," he said. "Again, I will say, it is on a case-by-case basis." 

The two CRPS high schools in the valley, Banff Community High School (BCHS) and Canmore Collegiate High School (CCHS) provide students with a handbook at the beginning of the year that expands on the one-line contained in the administrative procedures. 

The handbook for CCHS, however, goes further than just directing students to dress "in a manner appropriate for school," and includes language to prohibit clothing that displays slogans or graphics that are in "poor taste, contain foul language, or are offensive to others is unacceptable." 

"Clothing that is distracting to others or detracts from the learning environment for example, excessively revealing clothing, should be avoided," stated the CCHS 2019-20 student handbook. "Through the School Act, school personnel are given the authority to determine the acceptability of student dress. Students with unacceptable dress will be asked to change or sent home.

"Your dress should not be a distraction to the other people in the building. Please respect the modesty of yourself and others."

Finally, the handbook directs students to not wear footwear that causes damage to the facility, or creates "unnecessary cleaning problems." 

The 2019-20 handbook for Banff students, on the other hand, directs students to consider "how they present to others in how they dress."

"This school is a workplace environment that focuses on respect for all, building self-esteem and supporting diversity and individuality," stated the handbook. "CRPS dress code policy states that the student must be neat, clean and tidy in person and clothes. Clothing articles being racist, sexist, hateful, or disrespectful slogans, drawings, or inferences are prohibited. Students wearing such items will be required to change them if asked by school personnel.

"The appropriateness of questionable clothing will be at the discretion of the teacher and/or the principal."

Blackstock said the school division engages in a regular review of its administrative procedures. She said administration has been slowly working through them all and reviewing any changes with the board at its monthly public meetings. 

Blackstock added that updates to procedures can also be triggered by changes to the Education Act. 

"With regard to the dress code, as was stated at the board meeting, there has been no change in this regard, so expectations as outlined in school handbooks will remain unchanged," Blackstock said in an email to the Outlook

The role of dress codes to control the bodies of female students and students from Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) communities has been a topic of conversation in Canada.

In 2019, the largest school division in Canada adopted a new student dress policy to replace its previous appropriate dress policy, which had not been updated in a decade. 

According to the Toronto District School Board website, the new policy was meant to create fair and equitable standards for all schools and ensure the code is based on an "equity-centred standard and framework" consistent with the board's commitments. 

CRPS considers the dress code to be an administrative procedure and not subject to approval by the board. However, the Toronto school board believed the issue should be dealt with through an updated and comprehensive policy that is subject to political discussion and approval by elected officials.

The policy was then used to establish the procedures for teachers and administration to follow, which included different ways for the rules to be enforced, or to remedy these situations when they arise. The policy also set out the standards and that students may show their shoulders, abdomen, midriff, neck lines, cleavage, legs, thighs and hips. Straps from bras or waistbands from underwear may be exposed, however undergarments may not be subsituted as outerwear. 

Student dress must not promote discrimination, offensive or vulgar images or language, or symbolize the use of tobacco, cannabis, alcohol, drugs or incite violence or illegal activity. 

The process recognized that students have a role to play in the discussion and engaged them in the development, review and revision of the policy prior to it being approved. 

The Toronto board posted the draft policy online for a 90-day community engagement process. There was a public survey, focus group discussions, consultations with students, staff, parents and guardians, as well as stakeholders in the community. More than 400 submissions were received, with 19 per cent coming from those most affected – students themselves. 

The rationale section of the policy, which came into effect in September 2019, recognized that dress codes can be used to reinforce systemic bias and prejudice. 

"Historically, school dress codes have been written and enforced in ways that disproportionately and negatively impact: female-identified students, racialized students, gender diverse, transgender and non-binary students, students with disabilities, socioeconomically marginalized students and Indigenous, First Nation, Métis, and Inuit students," stated the Toronto District School Board policy. 

"Focused, explicit, persistent and determined action is required to challenge and overcome this history. The Student Dress Policy draws on the principles of equity, anti-oppression, anti-racism, non-discrimination, equitable and inclusive education."