Parental Dress Code = NO GOOD


We have GOT to do better than this.

This is EXACTLY the kind of shenanigans that would have sent me straight to the Huffington Post platform when I first started blogging years ago.

A parent dress code???

You can’t be serious.

Are we really using our title of educator to exclude parents from the schoolroom because of a head scarf and a t-shirt dress?

Okay, let me take a breath and go back a ways. Maybe you didn’t hear.

A couple weeks ago a well respected, but newly installed principal in Houston, Texas made national news when she created a new dress code policy, for parents.

Yes. For. The. Parents.

She was hired to help turnaround the struggling school and was troubled by unprofessional attire of parents, so much so that she decided it was time to exclude parents from the building due to their dress. Now, it was said that parents were frequently coming to the school dressed inappropriately. This, according to the new policy, included head scarves, bonnets and leggings to name a few. Principal, Carlotta Outley Brown, the school’s 4th principal in 5 years, took a hard stance on this one, which included having a parent escorted by school police off the property, refusing to let one parent enroll her child.

When I posted online about this story in one of the educator groups I am in, the conversation was divided with some feeling that this principal was well within her “rights” to make a standard for her building. Others felt that this crossed the line and was rude at best, but could it be more?

I have several real concerns about this. When I wrote my first book, with my sister and brother-in-law 5 years ago, we included a chapter called, “Make Peace with Parents”. It was critically important to me that we include this chapter because partnering with parents is the best, evidence based way to assure long term student success. Because we know that ultimately, children will go home with their parents and continue to be influenced by family it only make sense that we at the very least, include parents in the process. In my time working with educators in various capacities over the years, what I have seen sometimes is parents being blamed and shamed, ignored or insulted. Not always of course, but way more that I would’ve imagined years ago.

When Authentically Engaged Families which came out a couple years later went several steps farther outlining an entire plan for educating, connecting with and supporting families collaboratively. So to say I’m passionate about this topic would probably be a bit of an understatement.

But here’s the thing. I’ve worked with families in all sorts of situations, near homeless, battling addiction, 6 figure earners, middle class blue collar workers, you name it. There is no official standard that anyone should be comparing a parent to. But beyond that, it’s our job to educate children and partner with parents in the process, not judge their outfits.

Not too long ago, I had a parent who had lost custody of her children after a DUI. She did all her court ordered services, processed her long history of trauma in therapy with me, attended every supervised visit that was offered and was fighting to get her children back while working a 3rd shift job so that she was available for the court hearings and visitations during the first and second shifts. One day, when she was granted permission to see her daughter at school, she stopped by, before she went home to sleep for the first time in nearly 24 hours. She was so worried that she would accidentally oversleep and miss her chance to see her daughter, she pushed through to make the visit rather than sleeping and going later in the day. While there, her daughter’s teacher observed her and decided that she was being erratic. She said she was slurring her words and looked drowsy. She assumed that she was intoxicated. She went on to write a letter to the court noting that she looked high and that she feared for her student’s safety.

Sometimes even good intentions go wrong. Fortunately, she had a 6 month streak of clean drug screens and was able to disprove this report.

But when schools make assumptions and critiques about parents, these wounds cut deeply. This time it ended well with her daughter being returned to her care, but what do we think is going to happen when you have a parent kicked out of the building? This should always be the last resort and never business as usual.

On a deeper level, I worry about the direction we’re going in education. Raising standards sounds good on the surface, but who set the standard to begin with? If we mute a parent because of their clothing, what’s next? Is this the start of a trend of eliminating parents while simultaneously condemning their absence? How can you expect a parent to respect you, when you’ve shut the door in their face? If this mom had not enrolled her child, she would be considered negligent, so why would we applaud the school for excluding her?

What I believe this administrator was trying to do was lead the parents to level up their presentation at school so that the message might be for children to do the same. If the turnover rate of staff is anywhere close to that of the administrators for this school, it’s quite possible there is a toxic element in the building or the community making success unlikely for students, so I can imagine that this principal was trying to shake things up in a radical way to make a change. But until someone can show me a link between parental dress and increased student success, I will not believe this was the way to go.

But here’s the thing, leaders don’t lead by force, they lead by influence. You lead by showing up consistently, building relationship and illuminating a vision for those around you to see and be inspired by. We can’t make school something that the parents and community respect and appreciate by turning it into a club where they are not welcome.

So, what would I have done differently? I’m so glad you asked.

First, when I’m personally offended I always try to check my own perspective. To quote the immortal poet, Ice Cube, we all need to check ourselves before we wreck ourselves. We may be naturally offended by things, but that does not make it a priority or even our right to address. If I make an intentional effort to look for a strength, or lay a foundation for relationship I am generally able to move in the right direction without causing harm.

Next, thinking about the specific mother who was sent packing, I would make a special effort to speak with her privately, IF I truly believed her appearance was in some way detrimental to her child. Not likely, but perhaps. If I was truly offended by say an odor or offensive language, I would again, pull mom aside and have a private conversation about why I want what for her is in her best interest and offer support. Brene Brown talks about letting people leave with their dignity in her book, Dare to Lead, it’s a simple way to diffuse sometimes highly charged situations. What is this person actually looking for? What win-win can we create? If registration is completed quickly and in private, couldn’t that have been a much better outcome? Even if you decided to then communicate with mom about her attire.

If we’re looking at a long term ‘problem’, this is where your parent engagement plan comes into play. When we determine that we have a large scale need, meaning parents who either need access to clothing or education on the impact their attire might have on students, then that’s where we educate parents, provide access to clothing or community resources. Instead of coming through with a policy, how about a conversation?

There’s so many ways this conversation could have gone and even other things to consider like why do we have female specific dress codes with no male version? I’ve been to my fair share of suburban schools and I’ve seen some messy buns and yoga pants that wouldn’t be fit for the boardroom, but these type of policies wouldn’t even make it out of the principals mouth let alone be defended by the community at large. If the desire to improve outcomes for students is the actual priority, are we even sure that this access point is the one that will really shift the paradigm?

In an effort to simplify, the human brain often tricks us into reducing people to the lowest common denominator, we have to consciously choose to see people for more than the pieces of their personality or behavior and see them as their whole humanity. Isn’t that what we teach our students?