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Fargo schools reviewing dress code after dad raises gender-bias concerns

A father of three children who attend Fargo Public Schools, started an online group, #IAmNotADistractionFargo, as part of a nationwide movement calling attention to dress codes believed to unfairly target female students. Special to The Forum

FARGO — A father of three students attending Fargo Public Schools is challenging district officials to address dress code policies he says are gender biased and send a message of body shaming to female students.

Martin Fredricks said his son and two daughters come home from school often with stories about peers being "coded" for wearing spaghetti strap tops that are too revealing, pants that are too tight, or skirts and shorts that are too short.

It's the "too" part of these violations that Fredricks said needs clarifying because whether or not an article of clothing is appropriate is subjective and depends on who's passing judgment.

The dress code outlined in the student handbook is similar for elementary, middle and high schools across the Fargo district. Along with a specific list of dos and don'ts, the policy says: "Clothing and accessories worn by students are not to ... distract the educational process."

Fredricks said policies describing attire as a distraction are the problem, not the clothing. "It's not kids being 'coded' who are the problem," he said. "If someone is distracted, it's that person's problem. My daughters shouldn't have to change."

Some policies are straightforward, like one that says clothing advertising violence or illegal substances will not be tolerated. But further down the list is where the policy gets vague and unfair, Fredricks said.

The policy says: "Clothing such as short shorts, running shorts, halter tops, tube tops, spaghetti strap tops, or those which expose a bare midriff, bare back, undergarments, cleavage and any other clothing deemed inappropriate by the administrator will not be permitted."

Fredricks and his wife are trying to raise their daughters to be confident and view themselves in a positive light, and he said such dress code policies enforce body shaming that unfairly targets female students. He said limitations should be spelled out clearly so individual biases and moral filters are removed from the equation.

"I don't want some other individual using their personal bias or filter to make judgments about what my kids are wearing or how they express themselves," he said. "Girls being told implicitly or explicitly to cover yourself up or you will be a distraction to the boys and teachers, that’s not something I want in our schools."

Superintendent Rupak Gandhi said he doesn't want this in his district either and he's taking steps to address Fredricks' concerns. "One parent came to us saying how this one piece of language could be interpreted differently," Gandhi told The Forum. "It hasn't been a major issue, but we're looking at changes."

A school district spokesperson told The Forum that the district does not keep records of student dress code violations. The district does not track these violations because it is not a "data point that is required for us to track nor an item we have deemed useful to track for our purposes," the spokesperson said in an email.

Earlier this school year, Fredricks formed a local chapter of a nationwide movement calling for administrative action around dress code policies. The online group #IAmNotADistractionFargo piggybacks off the stories of students that went viral for bringing awareness to what they viewed as sexist policies. Since then, school districts across the country have implemented gender-neutral policies.

Gandhi has met with a group of students from the district's four high schools to discuss dress codes. The first meeting was in October, and another meeting is slated for December. In the meantime, he's meeting with principals and plans to meet with parents before any potential policy changes are considered.

So far, in his talks with students, he said they are providing what their definition of distraction is and what the district's policies should address. He said his intent is to get everyone — students, parents and staff — on the same page.

"Consistency is what we're looking at," he said, adding that language in the policy like "deemed inappropriate" could be interpreted differently, and he wants the dress code to clearly state what is and isn't allowed in school.

Since the school year already started, any changes would be implemented no earlier than the 2019-2020 academic year. The school board would not need to approve any changes, but Gandhi said he would inform the board and parents before moving forward with changes.

Fredricks said he's pleased with the district's approach to addressing dress code concerns. He said his next course of action depends on the outcome Gandhi arrives at later this school year after visiting with students, staff and parents.

Kim Hyatt

Kim Hyatt is a reporter with The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and a 2014 graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth. She started her newspaper career at the Owatonna People’s Press covering arts and education. In 2016, she received Minnesota Newspaper Association's Dave Pyle New Journalist Award and later that year she joined The Forum newsroom.

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