Student organizing is gaining momentum across America — the National School Walkout is proof that a change is happening among young people, and it’s happening fast.
High school students are making a difference on issues, and in communities, of all different sizes. In fact, students in my school district achieved a huge victory just last week. By standing up against a sexist dress code across different high schools in Kenosha, Wisconsin, we showed how student activism anywhere can start off small and then achieve big changes.
I am a member of the Women’s Empowerment Club at Indian Trail High School, which engages in activism to make our school a fairer and more equal learning environment. This year, we agreed on the need to take aim at our school district’s sexist dress code.
The dress code in our school district unfairly targeted female students by banning clothing that is commonly worn by female students, such as leggings, yoga pants, and tank tops. Female students have been kicked out of class and subjected to suggestive looks and comments from older adults. We have felt the eyes of 2,400 students as we get paraded around the building by faculty. Instead of being able to focus on our studies, young women have had to sacrifice our comfort as our bodies are judged as “distractions.”
Meanwhile, school officials have consistently overlooked the clothing decisions of our male counterparts. Whereas at least one of my female classmates was pulled out of class on an almost daily basis, I never saw a single male student disciplined, even when they wore pajama pants and other fashions that violated the dress code.
The enforcement of the dress code against female students who are judged a “distraction” also showed how little faith the school district had in its young men. Through their actions, adults were saying that young men couldn’t control their sexual impulses if a female student entered the room in a pair of leggings. Do we have such little faith in our teenage boys that we have to completely obscure young women’s bodies? Instead, we should be teaching young men that sexual harassment and assault is absolutely never okay, regardless of what a young woman is wearing.
The members of the Women’s Empowerment Club and I knew that we needed to hold our administrators and teenage boys more responsible for maintaining a safe and fair educational environment. We got to work on eradicating the school district’s discriminatory dress code.
After some discussions, we found the most appropriate way to make our voices heard: attending our local school board meetings, which meet once a month at 7 p.m. We intended to be there each month at 7 sharp, and we were.
At the meetings, we shared our personal stories with board members. I testified about experiencing the injustice of the dress code firsthand on multiple occasions, starting when I was a mere seventh grader. I described one time in 10th grade when I was kicked out of class for wearing leggings and a flannel shirt — an outfit I felt safe and comfortable in. That day, I missed a full day of education that included three tests.
I also testified about experiencing male teachers looking me up and down and commenting on my body or clothing choices in front of my classmates, which I find degrading and revolting. As I told the school board, teachers enforcing the dress code against me and my female classmates made us feel more like objects than human beings.
We never bowed down, even when some board members didn’t agree with us. And we weren’t alone. We started an online petition that received over three thousand signatures. After six regular board meetings and two working sessions, the board ruled in our favor. Last week, they voted to finally change the dress code’s bias against women.
When we started this experience, I never could have imagined how big an impact our student organizing could have. This change to the dress code affects current students, future students, and our entire community. Female students like me will no longer feel like we’re being targeted, like our bodies are something to be ashamed of. And although I’m graduating soon, my sister is only a fifth-grader in the school district. I’m relieved that she won’t have to experience the shame that the dress code put me through.
I am so proud to be part of this change in Kenosha and this student movement across America. The best part is that I know it’s not over. Even more positive change is possible, and I can’t wait to see the legacy of our work.
My message to other high school students is this: We can change the society we live in for the better, and we can start right now. Most of us may not be able to vote yet, but we can still make sure we’re heard. Whether your fight is small or big, it can make a difference in the world, so make your voice loud.