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Why this Utah high school dress code allows pajamas, midriff tops and ripped jeans

Educators say the updated policy reflects how students dress for school in 2022 and is intended to keep them in their classrooms

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Carol and Audrey Kamerath walk into West High School in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Carol and Audrey Kamerath walk into West High School in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2022.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

West High School in Salt Lake City has a little different take on how students should dress for school.

Does it really matter if a student’s hair is dyed purple? Does it matter if they’re wearing shorts and a tank top? Does it matter if they’ve shown up to school in pajamas or if they’re wearing ripped jeans?

For West High Principal Jared Wright, the most important thing is that students show up to school.

“It comes down to the fact we want you in school. Be who you are. Be comfortable. I just need you here in school, in class, learning the things you need to do to get credits you need to graduate,” he said.

As West High launched the academic year this week, it rolled out an updated dress code.

The code acknowledges how teens dress for school in 2022, but eschews prohibitions on dress and styles that typical school policies single out as “distracting to the learning environment.”

Yet, the school’s revised dress code draws a bright line against images or language that promote violence and illegal activities.

Wright said the dress code reflects the school’s priorities — teaching and learning.

To learn, students need to be in class. Educators need to be able to devote precious class time to instruction instead of dealing with interruptions from dress code enforcement, although students and administrators interviewed for this story say those instances are rare.

The dress code sets basic expectations within parameters that help create a welcoming, safe and inclusive environment at school, Wright said.

The new code allows sleeveless tops, pajamas, hoodies and average-sized backpacks. Clothing tops must have a front, back and sides. It is OK if midriffs show. Clothing bottoms are pants, sweatpants, shorts, skirts, dresses or leggings. It is OK if underwear waistbands show.

Hats and head coverings are permitted but students’ faces cannot be covered or hidden by head attire unless it is worn for religious, health or medical reasons.

Carol Kamerath and her younger sister Audrey Kamerath, who both attend West, say the updated dress code reflects what students already wear to school, avoids gender-specific language and respects students’ religious and cultural differences.

The Kamerath sisters have moved multiple times during their childhoods because their father is a military doctor.

They’ve attended school in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, which has strict dress standards. Carol Kamerath, entering her senior year, said she was denied entry to cultural fairs, even a COVID-19 testing site, because she was wearing leggings or shorts.

When the family lived in Olympia, Washington, the high school dress code was so permissive that some parents who objected to the policy threatened to wear Speedo swimsuits in protest, said Tami Kamerath, the girls’ mother.

Audrey Kamerath, who is starting her sophomore year, said West High’s dress code appears to strike a happy medium. “It sounds pretty good to me,” she said.

The language about head coverings is particularly important, she said.

“I think it’s important that we recognize that hijab is part of the Muslim religion and culture and I think it’s important to allow people to wear that. I mean it’s part of their religious expression and modesty, which is very important in their culture. So yeah, that’s great,” Audrey Kamerath said.

Incoming senior Sadie Nelson-Stippich served on a committee of educators, students, parents and community members that worked to update the dress code.

Nelson-Stippich said she’s “a fan” of the finished product, too.

“I think that it’s really inclusive. My main concern going into it was using nonbinary pronouns so that it applies to everyone at the school. I feel like we really thought about the implications of each thing within the dress code and what it means,” she said.

Assistant Principal Kate Arch said the code also reflects a shift in attitudes about dress resulting from long periods of remote teaching and learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Salt Lake City’s public schools were the last to resume in-person learning after schools statewide pivoted to remote learning in the spring of 2020.

Attire in business and government settings has changed, too. Fewer men sport neckties in professional settings. Men and women alike prize comfort over trendy fashions. Students who had settled into remote learning grew accustomed to wearing leggings, shorts, yoga pants and even pajamas.

“We felt like this was a good time as a school and as a community to focus on things that need to change and this was one of the items we just felt was too dated and didn’t reflect the reality of school anymore,” Arch said.

The updated dress code does not include language found in some dress codes that says short skirts or shorts must be below fingertip length. Some policies also spell out specific width measurements for shoulder straps on tops.

Catherine Stroud, outgoing chairwoman of West High’s school community council, said she did not want to place either a student or an educator in a situation where a student’s hemline or shoulder straps were subject to measurements.

West High’s policy gives educators flexibility, for safety reasons, to establish specific clothing and footwear requirements.

It also sets firm limits against gang attire, swimsuits and underwear as outer top or bottom clothing. It also prohibits images or language related to illegal items or activities such as drugs, alcohol, tobacco and vaping. Clothing that depicts images or language that is profane, obscene, sexual or pornographic is also prohibited.


Audrey and Carol Kamerath pack their backpacks at home prior to school at West High in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2022.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Across the county, there is rigorous debate about dress codes and code enforcement.

It’s unclear whether dress codes positively impact academic achievement, according to academic literature. An Education Commission of the States policy report found research on the effects of dress code and school uniform policies is inconclusive and mixed.

But there is growing evidence that suspending offenders from school or removing them from class to change clothes or to have administrators determine if their attire is in violation of school policy can have deleterious effects.

“The concern is that students who may already be struggling academically fall farther behind in class when they miss too much time serving suspensions, changing clothes, or waiting while administrators measure their skirt lengths. Nationwide, African American girls are 5.5 times more likely than their white counterparts to be suspended from school, but it’s not clear what proportion of those punishments stem from dress code issues,” Education Week reported.

Nationally, there are hundreds of change.org petitions that call for changes to school dress codes and enforcement practices that petitioners describe as sexist, more punitive to students of color, discriminate against boys based on the length of their hair or do not take into account students’ differing body shapes.

An online petition by a student in Jenison, Michigan, states that the high school dress code tells young girls that their “bodies are sexual objects.”

“I don’t think my shoulder, bra strap, belly-button, legs or back are going to distract a male, any students or faculty. ... We should stop teaching women to change so they don’t have to fear men, and start to teach men to start respecting women,” the petitioner wrote.


Carol and Audrey Kamerath and their cousin Kate Wright walk to West High School in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2022.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

For Wright, the issue pivot boils down to lessons he learned from a mentor, who was also a principal.

She once asked Wright, “What’s the purpose of students coming to school? They need to feel warm and welcome and safe. They need to do whatever the purpose of the school is.”

It’s different at every grade level. At the high school level, the overarching goal is completion.

“So many other things that go into that, but really, it’s ‘What are we actually trying to accomplish?’ We’re trying to have an inclusive community that’s welcoming and dignifies people,” Wright said.

West High’s new dress code enables students to dress within “very open parameters” with some considerations for safety and basic expectations “where I can still be me and that’s OK.”