K-12 Education: Department of Education Should Provide Information on Equity and Safety in School Dress Codes

GAO-23-105348 Published: Oct 25, 2022. Publicly Released: Oct 25, 2022.
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Fast Facts

Nearly all public school districts require students to adhere to dress codes and often cite safety as the reason. But there are concerns about inequity in dress code rules and enforcement.

For example, school dress codes more frequently restrict items typically worn by girls. And rules about hair and head coverings can disproportionately impact Black students and those of certain religions and cultures.

Schools that enforce strict dress codes enroll more Black or Hispanic students and are more likely to remove students from class—which can be detrimental to their development and learning.

Our recommendations address this and other issues.

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Highlights

What GAO Found

While school districts often cite safety as the reason for having a dress code, many dress codes include elements that may make the school environment less equitable and safe for students. For example, an estimated 60 percent of dress codes have rules involving measuring students' bodies and clothing—which may involve adults touching students. Consequently, students, particularly girls, may feel less safe at school, according to a range of stakeholders GAO interviewed. According to GAO's nationally generalizable review of public school dress codes, districts more frequently restrict items typically worn by girls—such as skirts, tank tops, and leggings—than those typically worn by boys—such as muscle shirts. Most dress codes also contain rules about students' hair, hair styles, and head coverings, which may disproportionately impact Black students and those of certain religions and cultures, according to researchers and district officials. Department of Education (Education) officials told GAO they are considering options to provide helpful resources to stakeholders and the public, but as of September 2022, Education had not provided information on dress codes. Providing such information would align with the agency's goal to enhance equity and safety in schools.

Items Commonly Prohibited by School Dress Codes

Items Commonly Prohibited by School Dress Codes

Schools that report enforcing strict dress codes predominantly enroll Black and Hispanic students and are more likely to remove students from class. GAO's analysis of national data found that more than four in five predominantly Black schools and nearly two-thirds of predominantly Hispanic schools enforce a strict dress code, compared to about one-third of predominantly White schools. In addition, schools that enforce strict dress codes are associated with statistically significant higher rates of discipline that removes students from the classroom (e.g., suspensions). Further, an estimated 44 percent of dress codes outlined “informal” removal policies, such as removing a student from class without documenting it as a suspension. Education has recently noted challenges related to informal removals in guidance documents but has no information on the prevalence or impact of this emerging issue. Without information on the full range of ways children are disciplined—including informal removals and non-exclusionary discipline—Education's efforts to provide resources on the equitable enforcement of discipline will have critical gaps.

Why GAO Did This Study

In recent years, researchers, advocates, parents, and students have raised concerns about equity in school dress codes. Concerns have included the detrimental effects of removing students from the classroom for dress code violations.

A committee report accompanying H.R. 7614 included a provision for GAO to study dress code discipline. This report also addresses a request to study informal removals. This report examines (1) the characteristics of K-12 dress codes across school districts nationwide, and how Education supports the design of equitable and safe dress codes; (2) the enforcement of dress codes, and how Education supports equitable dress code enforcement.

To examine characteristics of dress codes, GAO analyzed a nationally representative sample of public school district dress codes. To assess the enforcement of dress codes and how Education supports school districts, GAO analyzed Education data; reviewed relevant studies on dress code discipline; and interviewed academic researchers and officials from national organizations, school districts, and Education.

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Recommendations

GAO is making four recommendations, including that Education provide resources to help districts design equitable dress codes and collect and disseminate information on the prevalence and effects of informal removals and non-exclusionary discipline. Education described steps to implement all four recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Education The Secretary of Education should provide resources to help districts and schools design equitable dress codes to promote a supportive and inclusive learning environment. (Recommendation 1)
Open
Education neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation. The agency described efforts it plans to take to address this recommendation: we will monitor the agency's progress on these efforts.
Department of Education The Secretary of Education should include dress code information in existing resources on safe and supportive schools. This information could include examples of dress codes that safeguard students' privacy and body autonomy. (Recommendation 2)
Open
Education neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation. The agency described efforts it plans to take to address this recommendation: we will monitor the agency's progress on these efforts.
Department of Education The Secretary of Education should provide resources for states, school districts, and schools on the equitable enforcement of discipline, including dress code discipline. These resources should include information that helps states, school districts, and schools address potential disparities and disproportionality in dress code enforcement, as appropriate. (Recommendation 3)
Open
Education neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation. The agency described efforts it plans to take to address this recommendation: we will monitor the agency's progress on these efforts.
Department of Education The Secretary of Education should collect information on the prevalence and effects of informal removals and non-exclusionary discipline and disseminate this information to states, school districts, and schools. (Recommendation 4)
Open
Education neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation. Education officials said that through a formal comment process, the agency is soliciting specific input from the public on questions related to informal removals, and that the responses will inform OCR's proposed information collection request for the CRDC's 2025-26 school year collection. However, it also said it does not have mechanisms for collecting information on the effects of these practices. Education also said that IES is authorized to evaluate federal education programs but that the department does not have a discrete, evaluable program that addresses informal removals or non-exclusionary discipline. Further, Education explained that while the agency does not have the authority to direct RELs to conduct research on informal removals and non-exclusionary discipline, the RELs could themselves conduct such research if a REL's stakeholders prioritize it. We appreciate Education's efforts and understand the challenges of determining the effects of informal removals and non-exclusionary discipline. We encourage Education to think creatively about ways to collect and share information, within its existing authorities, about the effects of informal removals and exclusionary discipline. For example, it could leverage discussions with stakeholders, working groups, or exploratory committees as a first step toward collecting and disseminating information on the effects of informal removals and non-exclusionary discipline.

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