Hopkins students press gender equity through dress-code changes

  • Hopkins Academy graduates wait for the start of commencement June 3 at the school in Hadley. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 7/19/2017 5:53:54 PM

HADLEY — High schoolers are leading a campaign at Hopkins Academy to promote equality, continuing an effort that began with a student sit-in in April to protest gender inequity at the school.

Students said they viewed uneven dress code enforcement policies and low attendance at female sporting events as evidence of gender inequality in the school’s culture.

“This was an issue in our school,” said Sara Scagliarini, a 2017 Hopkins graduate, who participated in the April demonstration. “It’s everywhere, not just here, and we need to start fighting back.”

Since the demonstration, a group of students and faculty has drafted suggested dress code updates, and the district has hired a communications consultant to help the group brainstorm ideas for a gender equity media campaign in the school.

The campaign won’t take off until the fall, but the School Committee could approve the suggested dress code changes when it votes on the school handbook at its July 24 meeting. The updates were presented to the committee on June 22.

April Camuso, faculty adviser for the campaign and English department chairwoman, said the new dress code is only a short-term project the group is tackling while working in a long-term way to change attitudes toward gender per the desire of students.

“We heard them and we want to respect them,” Camuso said. “They’re not trying to be disrespectful. We want to handle the situation, so they don’t feel disrespected.”

Proposed rules

Scagliarini said changes clarify existing requirements and aim to address both male and female students equally.

The current dress code states that, if adminstrators deem shorts too short, they can ask students to change, but no length guidelines for shorts are given. The update says that garments must cover “one’s rear” to be considered appropriate.

The proposed update also states that while undergarments can’t be shown, a bra strap or “an inch” of boxers do not count as a violation. Scagliarini said she feels the clarification is more likely to be evenly enforced, because guidance is given for both boys and girls.

Other changes include guidance for religious head coverings, which are explicitly allowed in the new code while other head coverings remain banned. In the current code, there are no exceptions. Transgender and gender-nonconforming students are explicitly allowed to dress in whatever manner they think best expresses themselves under the proposed code.

The updated code would also mandate that dress violations be addressed with a student away from peers, a point Scagliarini thinks is particularly important. She said it’s embarrassing to be called out in front of other students for dress code issues.

“The matter should be addressed privately,” Scagliarini said.

Additionally, the dress code update seeks to create a formal process for student appeals.

In the proposed process, students would still have to change clothes if staff asked them to do so during the day. However, the student would later be able to show the clothing in question to a board of students, faculty, staff and administrators, who would decide whether the garment can be worn in the future.

The current code has no recourse for students who object when they’re told to change.

Superintendent Anne McKenzie said the campaign is a work in progress.

Camuso said the equity campaign will likely use public service announcement-like posters and images to raise awareness of gender equality issues. She said the group is also interested in trying to create an alumni event to encourage more people to attend girl’s basketball games.

Scagliarini said teachers and administrators have been supportive of the students’ work so far. Two of them attended a May 1 School Committee meeting to present the group’s progress. McKenzie told them that they inspire her.

“I don’t think I would’ve had the courage to confront something at your age that seems intractable and overwhelming and hard to get one’s head and hands around,” McKenzie said. “I applaud your courage, and I really want to thank you because it’s actions like that — like yours — that inspire me to be better and do better.”

At the same meeting, Camuso said that although the initiative is focused on high school-aged students, she would like the efforts to reach middle school students and perhaps elementary students at some point.

She said there might be barriers to changing the community culture because she thinks Hadley residents value tradition, but she believes the campaign can extend its reach beyond the school’s doors.

“What they experience in the school isn’t just the school, it’s the larger community as well,” Camuso said at the May 1 meeting. “We really want to try to get together as a whole community.”

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