In the coming weeks, students at Watsonville High School will join forces with administrators, teachers and parents to develop a new dress code that will promote campus safety and encourage a minimum of decorum while allowing students to s express through fashion.
But the school year didn’t start on such a cooperative note.
Instead, on the Friday before school started, the students discovered that a new dress code had already been created for them – without their input – and contained rules they deemed unnecessary.
Students banded together, circulating a petition among their peers, speaking to school administrators and addressing the Pajaro Valley Unified School District Board of Trustees.
The school listened.
The new rules — more restrictive and specific than previous ones, according to the students — seemed to focus on what female students could wear, says junior Bella Umeki-Martinez. Some rules included limiting shorts and skirts to a minimum of 5 inches and banning sheer tops, underwear worn as outerwear, strapless shirts, and shirts that show midriffs.
“He was primarily targeting women and the female body,” Umeki-Martinez says.
The code also prohibited baggy pants and belts hanging below the hem of the shirt. Additionally, red or blue hats were on the list, as were black, red or blue rosaries.
Law enforcement officials say criminal street gangs are known to identify with these colors, but students say such a rule is wrong since most gang activity does not occur on campus. .
“We kind of felt like it criminalized our students,” Umeki-Martinez says. “I understand they want to protect us, but the only problem was that it wasn’t communicated effectively. We know we live in an area that has more gang activity than other schools, but we felt that they were saying that any student who wears red or blue must be affiliated. That’s how it came to us.”
Alvaro Felix, 16, agreed and added that the policy against rosaries seemed to attack the Latin and religious community.
“We thought targeting religion was inappropriate, given that it’s America,” he says.
Indeed, federal courts have ruled that banning students from wearing rosaries infringes on their First Amendment rights to express their religion.
Several local high schools, including Soquel, Aptos and Pajaro Valley, also believe that preventing students from wearing colors associated with criminal gangs helps reduce potential violence. However, there is little empirical evidence supporting such a notion.
“I don’t think it was ever a problem at school,” Felix says. “It doesn’t involve colors. It never was.
Morielle Mamaril, 17, the school’s associate student body co-president, says policies targeting what students wear don’t address the fundamental problem surrounding gangs in schools. Instead, she says, the school should dig deeper, offering expanded counseling services and other forms of help.
Concerns over dress code details aside, Felix says the students’ main concern was that they weren’t included in the creative process.
“More inclusiveness is exactly what we needed,” he says. “There’s only one way to really solve this problem, and that’s with the student body, parents and the community. The fact that they take student feedback into account, we deeply appreciate it.
Senior Fernanda Jordan says many students felt like they were being treated like children, especially the code warning against bare feet.
“Because at the end of the day, we are young adults and we know not to come to school without shoes,” she says.
Watsonville High School principal Clara Fernandez said the new rules will be more student-centric while focusing on their safety.
“Ultimately, the goal is to have a dress code that is appropriate and does not discriminate against any particular point of view or result in disproportionate application based on the student’s gender or sexual orientation” , she says. “I hope we can come together and create a fair and well-implemented dress code where students feel they have the right to express themselves while keeping safety at heart, because that’s really what is the intention.”
As the controversy grew in the first days of school, vice-principal Jeff Daucher added fuel to the fire with comments about the dress code he made to students.
In a recording made by a student posted on social media, Daucher could be heard asking what message female students send to their male counterparts with what they wear.
He also says in the recording that girls who wear clothes that show their bellies should have “abs” first, says Umeki-Martinez.
This reaction from a school official disturbed many students.
“When he sees a girl wearing an outfit like that, it’s like an invitation for the boys and him to make advances,” she says. “It was the message behind the dress code that bothered the students.”
PVUSD officials do not comment on the matter as it involves personnel issues. In a letter sent to parents, district officials say Daucher’s statement “was not consistent with the beliefs of our community.”
“I have spoken to the individual to ensure they understand the impact of the statement, and we are committed to ensuring that we continue to respond to comments that may disrupt the learning environment,” reads -on in the letter.
Prior to upcoming conferences, students are invited to complete an online survey to help attendees shape the new policy.
“Now we can move forward and create better change in the future,” Umeki-Martinez says, adding that she hopes the new model for creating a school-wide policy can inspire other schools to do the same. “We could see a very positive change collectively.”