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Dress controversy: Girls turned away from homecoming dance

About two dozen girls were turned away from their homecoming dance at Stansbury High School, Saturday, Sept. 29, 2012. From Facebook photos, here are various examples of homecoming dresses that were deemed to be inappropriate.
About two dozen girls were turned away from their homecoming dance at Stansbury High School, Saturday, Sept. 29, 2012. From Facebook photos, here are various examples of homecoming dresses that were deemed to be inappropriate.

STANSBURY PARK, Tooele County — Stansbury High School plans to hold a “replacement dance” and make changes to its dress code after at least two dozen teens were prevented from attending a weekend homecoming dance because of their attire.

“As much as we want to have a certain level of appropriateness and reasonableness, there was never any intention for people to leave heartbroken and disgruntled and confused and frustrated,” Principal Kendall Topham said Monday. “So that apology needed to happen and it did happen.”

Several teens at Stansbury High School wore their homecoming dresses to class Monday in protest of a dress code that got them kicked out of Saturday's dance. They also signed a petition to have the dress code changed to be more specific with input from the student body.

About two dozen girls were turned away from the dance because some schools staff members monitoring the dance deemed their dresses too short or otherwise inappropriate. But the dress code itself is a matter of interpretation.

“It was just utter shock at first,” said Amber Hesleph. “Here we are spending all this time and everything and then we get there and they just turn us away. It’s just kind of depressing.”

Donna Hesleph, Amber’s mother, said the outcome of the dance for many students was "very sad.”

“If you’re going to arbitrarily paint scarlet letters all over children, then something has to change,” she said.

Homecoming Queen Erica Alvey was among those turned away. “They told me that it was showing my knees so it was too short, and in order to get into the dance I had to put on leggings,” she said. “So I did, and I got back in the dance, but that was before I realized that this thing was going to turn into such a big issue.”

Students and parents immediately took to the Internet voicing their outrage about what happened. A Facebook page titled Stansbury High Homecoming Spirit Massacre had more than 3,100 "likes" Monday afternoon.

Topham said information about the dress code was included on fliers prior to the dance and was posted on the school’s website. It said: "Reminder: The Formal Dance Dress Code is located on page 30 of the student planner and there are posters up around school showing examples. Students are expected to look their best and dress appropriately.

"Dresses should be at or near knee length. Slits in the dresses should not be any higher than the top of the knee. Strapless dresses are prohibited unless a jacket or shawl is worn. 'Plunging' necklines are prohibited. The backs of dresses should not show more than 1/3 of the back (directly below the armpits). Midriffs should not show in any way. 'Sheer' fabric is acceptable, as long as skin is not showing underneath."

That's what several parents say their daughters wore, and added that the administration wasn't fair in deciding who got to stay for the dance and who was turned away.

“One of our standards for formal wear is that skirts be at or near the knee,” Topham said. “There’s some ambiguity about what it means to be near the knee.”

He said teachers and an assistant principal were enforcing the dress code Saturday.

“There were some dresses that I’ve been informed that were clearly not in compliance,” Topham said. “But there were those that, depending on the interpretation, would be allowed for some and not allowed for others. And so that part of it needs to be fixed and that needs to be addressed. There’s no question about it."

The principal met with the student council and held assemblies with the students Monday to address what happened during the dance. Students were also asked to give their input on the dress code and filled out a questionnaire. The student council will look those over and then meet with the administration to clarify the dress code.

“I feel bad because we have a lot of good kids at the school,” he said. “We just need to better clarify things.”

The school's website now shows a clarified version of the student dress code. Dresses now have to reach or go below the knees, and not just near or just above the knee.

Two researchers who have studied body image and objectification of women say the incident at Stansbury High School is a teaching moment for parents and girls.

Lexie and Lindsay Kite have spent the past decade studying the issue and will end the school year with a doctorate thesis on the subject. They launched Beauty Redefined, a nonprofit group that helps change the way people see beauty.

The school is within its right to have a dress code, they said, but the enforcement of the code was skewed.

“We had people maybe enforce their own ideas about what’s appropriate and that didn’t really fall in line with what many of the girls and their parents thought about what was appropriate,” Lindsay Kite said. “When you enforce these kinds of arbitrary standards that aren’t necessarily enforced in other aspects of the school’s events or other life experience, that teaches them that they are bodies, that they are to be looked at, and that those bodies are shameful.”

"When they were at the door and turned away, it breaks my heart a little,” Lexie Kite said. “It teaches girls that that extra inch here or there, if that's showing, then suddenly they are harmful to people and we have to be ashamed of our bodies because of it."

Both say girls need to be taught that they are more than just bodies and they can be empowered to do great things.

“We know that when girls respect their bodies they actually make better decisions for them, in terms of nutrition, physical fitness and also in terms of the way they dress,” Lexie Kite said.

Contributing: Shara Park, Peter Samore