ICYMI: Government Watchdog Report Finds Unequal Enforcement of Dress Codes May Make Schools Less Safe for Students

October 25, 2022
Press Release

WASHINGTON – A new report released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) revealed that discriminatory enforcement of school dress codes may make school environments less equitable and safe for students and lead to harmful discipline practices.

Specifically, the GAO report found that dress codes typically restrict items most frequently worn by girls, students of color, and LGBTQI+ students. As a result, schools remove these students from the classroom at significantly higher rates compared to their peers which leads to increased risk of poor academic outcomes and higher dropout rates.

This GAO report was a response to two, separate Congressional requests. Appropriations Committee Chair Rosa DeLauro (CT-03), at the request of Congresswoman Barbara Lee (CA-13) and Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (NJ-12), included a mandate for GAO to examine the enforcement and consequences of school dress codes on students in the FY2021 Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies House Appropriations bill. Additionally, Education and Labor Committee Chairman Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (VA-03), and Congressman A. Donald McEachin (VA-04) requested the GAO examine the intentional underreporting of suspensions in K-12 schools, including using informal removals. 

“While dress codes are often instituted under the guise of safety, this GAO report reveals that these school rules can put students at risk of suspension from class and make them feel less safe,” said Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro. “Dress codes often focus on girls, and disproportionately harm Black and Hispanic students impacting student learning and outcomes. I thank Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies (LHHS) Appropriations subcommittee members Representatives Barbara Lee and Bonnie Watson Coleman for their work to ensure this report was mandated in the fiscal year 2021 LHHS House Appropriations bill. I hope that policymakers and schools across the country use this report to examine school dress codes and implement policies that foster safe, welcoming school environments for all students.”

“This GAO report shows that the unequal enforcement of dress codes disproportionately impacts girls, students of color, and LGBTQI+ students and can lead to unsafe outcomes. Additionally, many school districts do not report cases of suspension or expulsion, leaving students unsupervised and without the support they need to get back on track,” said Chairman Robert C. “Bobby” Scott. “I look forward to the forthcoming disciplinary guidance from the Department of Education to help address these disparities and provide school districts with the resources needed to help all students succeed.”

“This GAO report underscores the impact inequitable dress codes have on children in our schools,” said Congresswoman Barbara Lee. “My colleagues and I on the Appropriations Committee fought for this back in 2020. With the leadership of Chairman Scott and Congressman McEachin on the Education and Labor Committee, we now have research showing that school districts are more focused on prohibiting the dress of girls over boys, and that institutions serving predominantly students of color enforce such dress codes more strictly than predominantly White schools. This is unacceptable. Our schools should not perpetuate existing discriminatory stereotypes, but rather be a place of empowerment for our students. I look forward to working with my colleagues to address such biases and implement policies that foster supportive environments for all students.”

“Both teachers and students deserve school environments that are safe, supportive, and conducive to teaching and learning,” said Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman. “Dress code enforcement often disrupts the learning environment of students and reports of excessive use of force in disciplinary actions at schools is of great concern to everyone seeking equitable, high quality education for our youth.”

“The troubling findings from this GAO report underscore the disparate dress code standards imposed on girls, students of color, and LGBTQ+ youth,” said Congressman A. Donald McEachin. “Dress codes are meant to maintain an environment conducive to education and learning; however, unequitable enforcement is disproportionately impacting certain demographics and causing them to lose out on crucial time in the classroom. Given the learning loss caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is even more imperative that students have the opportunity and ability to attend school and receive a quality education. The Department of Education must issue new guidance to ensure our school systems have the resources necessary to revise these standards and make them fairer for all students.”

The GAO made recommendations for the Department of Education to help school districts design equitable and safe dress code policies, to provide resources for schools to enforce discipline policies more equitably, and ensure the Department has the necessary tools to help schools implement effective disciplinary polices.

To read highlights of the GAO report, click here.  To read the full GAO report, click here.

117th Congress