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Dress code stirs controversy at Harbor City International School

Harbor City International School freshmen Galalee Wright, 14, and Keira Farkas, 14, both of Duluth wear outfits that they say school administrators told them violated the dress code at the school. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)1 / 2
Harbor City International School freshman student Keira Farkas, 14, of Duluth wears the word “distracting” on her chest in protest of the dress code at the school. Amelia has been cited for dress code infractions on numerious occasions and feels that administrators are unfairly targeting female students. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)2 / 2

Students and parents are taking issue with the enforcement of a dress code they say is resulting in female students feeling “humiliated” and “uncomfortable” at Duluth’s Harbor City International School.

Several students said they’ve been repeatedly targeted for dress code violations and sent to the administrative office to have staff review their clothing.

“It’s just a heaping plate of body shame in that office every time,” ninth-grader Keira Farkas said.

However, leaders of the Duluth charter school say the policy was changed this year to be more lenient than in previous years and isn’t intended to embarrass students. So far this school year, there have been 44 violations of the dress code policy, according to school Executive Director Paul McGlynn.

“If our policy, our enforcement is in some way causing people to feel these feelings, we need to talk about it. We need to find a way to change it,” he said.

Jenny Ahern, a math teacher and chairwoman of Harbor City’s Board of Directors, noted that a discussion needs to take place on the larger issue of whether school dress code policies are discriminatory toward female students; that’s a discussion taking place nationally.

“I haven’t witnessed staff shaming somebody. I think it’s an institutional issue. Now, saying that you can’t wear a certain thing is the shaming part of it,” she said. “I think, ‘Hey, good question,’ because I, as a woman, think about those same things. I understand those bigger questions they’re asking.”

People criticizing the dress code say they only want an open discussion on improving the policy. The school is planning a meeting about its dress code policy Tuesday.

Concerns about enforcement

The school’s dress code was rewritten by female staff in August 2014, and McGlynn said dress code policies at other Duluth area school districts were reviewed during the process. The policy was rewritten to be more vague because some parts of the previous policy were challenging for staff to enforce, Ahern said.

It’s up to the discretion of the teachers whether they’re going to send a student to the office for a dress code violation. If a teacher believes a student has violated the policy, they hand the student a small purple piece of paper that says, “Dress Code Reminder. Please report to the office.”

“You put your trust in them to get you through school,” but the dress code system is set up so teachers are targeting students based on appearance, 12th-grader Elia Krumm said.

Teachers try to privately hand the paper slips to the students, Ahern said.

“My co-workers are respectful people and we really care about our students, so we try to give these to them in a discreet way. It’s not about embarrassing somebody,” Ahern said.

Ninth-grader Galalee Wright said that when she went to the office for a dress code violation, both male and female staff members made her turn around to evaluate her clothing.

“It makes you feel humiliated,” she said.

McGlynn disputed that account, saying female students’ attire is reviewed by two female staff members in the school’s office. He explained, “We think that’s a more respectful way to handle it.”

He said at no time has a male administrator looked at female students while they turned around in a circle.

“It’s never happened. There has been a time when a female came in here — we don’t do this thing where you turn around — and one time (Operations Manager Dawn Buck) said, ‘What do you think?’ and I said, ‘Absolutely, she seems OK to me.’ ”

Ahern added that if a student feels a line has been crossed, they want that student to speak up about it immediately, and the school will take it seriously.

If a student’s clothing violates the dress code, they are given the option of altering their clothing, going home to change or choosing clothes out of a closet at the school, Ahern said. No student has been sent home by the school for their clothing, she added.

Given the option of wearing clothing from the school’s closet adds further humiliation to the situation, the students say, because the other students notice they’re wearing different clothing for the remainder of the school day.

Krumm was given the option of the clothing after her shorts were found to be a dress code violation.

“It’s almost like a mark of shame,” she said, adding that she cried about the experience after she left school that day.

The violations, they say, have created an environment where girls fear that their clothing will be found unacceptable every day they go to school and they no longer feel safe at the school.

“It makes us feel so bad, we don’t want to come to school,” Wright said.

Wright said she was sent to the office when she wore a long-sleeved sweatshirt that was a violation because if she moved around a lot, there was a possibility that the neck hole of the sweatshirt might reveal a glimpse of her bra strap.

Farkas said she’s been told by staff that her clothing is “too distracting” for the other students. She said that comment made her feel like staff at the school was objectifying her body. Galalee Wright’s mother, Adeline Wright, added that it implies girls are to blame if a person looks at them in certain ways because of what they are wearing.

Ahern said school staff don’t use words such as “distracting” when talking to students about their attire.

Farkas also said male students have worn shirts without sleeves and they weren’t reprimanded for it.

Adeline Wright questioned if something has changed at Harbor City this school year after a former employee was charged last August with felony third-degree criminal sexual conduct for having a relationship with a 17-year-old Harbor City student, who is now 22 years old. Christopher Bacigalupo has since pleaded guilty and been sentenced.

McGlynn said the case had no bearing on the school’s dress code policy, which he said has become more lenient since last summer.

“In all honesty, it had no connection,” he said.

Meeting planned

Parents and students raising concerns about the dress code say they want to encourage the school to have a code that serves the students — and they want an open dialogue about it with the administration. However, they expressed concern that the meeting at the school next week will stifle their comments.

Everyone will be able to speak freely, Ahern said. School officials do want to limit third-party comments so that the focus is on parents and students speaking about their firsthand experiences, she said.

School leaders say concerns about the dress code initially were raised on social media, outside of school. They’re open to discussing the concerns, McGlynn said — but they weren’t getting any direct feedback.

“We thought we were approaching this in a really compassionate and respectful way and in good intention. … Clearly there was some perspective that that wasn’t the case,” he said.

When the issue was raised by students in March, McGlynn said he had a 45-minute meeting with them about problems they saw in the policy. However, students aren’t united against the dress code, and McGlynn said some students have told him they’re OK with the policy.

“What we really want is a policy where people feel comfortable and feel safe and it moves toward creating an environment that’s good for education. That’s the bottom line and if people feel this is interfering with education, that’s when we meet. We try to react to that as quickly as possible,” McGlynn said.

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