In the coming weeks, Watsonville High School students will join forces with administrators, teachers and parents to hammer out a new dress code that will promote campus safety and encourage a modicum of decorum while allowing students to express themselves through fashion.
But the school year did not start on such a cooperative note.
Instead, on the Friday before school started students found that a new dress code had already been created for them—without their input—and contained rules, they found unnecessary.
The students banded together, circulating a petition among their peers, talking 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, students say—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.
“It was mostly targeting women and the female body,” Umeki-Martinez says.
The code also banned baggy pants and belts hanging below the shirt hem. In addition, hats with red or blue made the list, as did black, red or blue rosaries.
Law enforcement officials say that criminal street gangs are known to identify with those colors, but the students say such a rule is misguided since most gang activity doesn’t occur on campus.
“We felt a bit that it was criminalizing our students,” Umeki-Martinez says. “I understand they want to keep us safe, but the only problem was that it wasn’t communicated effectively. We know we live in an area where there is more gang activity than other schools, but it felt that they were saying any student who wears red or blue must be affiliated. That’s how it came off to us.”
Alvaro Felix, 16, agreed and added that the policy against rosaries appeared to attack the Latinx and religious community.
“We thought targeting religion was inappropriate, considering this is 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 feel that preventing students from wearing colors associated with criminal gangs helps curb potential violence. However, there is little empirical evidence supporting such a notion.
“I don’t think it’s ever been a school problem,” Felix says. “It doesn’t involve colors. It never has.”
Morielle Mamaril, 17, the school’s associated student body co-president, says that policies going after what students wear do not address the fundamental problem surrounding gangs in schools. Instead, she says, the school should dig deeper, offering expanded counseling services and other help.
Worries about the particulars of the dress code aside, Felix says that students’ main concern was that they were not included in the creation process.
“More inclusivity is exactly what we needed,” he says. “There’s only one way to really fix this issue—and that’s with the student body and the parents and the community. The fact that they are taking student input, we deeply appreciate that.”
Senior Fernanda Jordan says that many students felt they were being treated like children, particularly the admonition in the code prohibiting 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 Principal Clara Fernandez says that the new rules will be more student-centered while focusing on keeping them safe.
“Ultimately the goal is to have a dress code that is appropriate, and that does not discriminate against any particular viewpoint or result in any disproportionate application based on student gender or sexual orientation,” she says. “Hopefully, we can come together and create an equitable and well-implemented dress code where students feel that they have the right to self-expression while keeping safety at the core, because that’s really what the intent is.”
While the controversy was growing in the first days of school, Assistant Principal Jeff Daucher added fuel to the fire with comments about the dress code he made to the students.
In a recording made by a student posted to 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 showing their midriff should first have “abs,” Umeki-Martinez says.
That reaction from a school official disturbed many students.
“When he sees a girl wearing an outfit like that, it’s like an invitation for boys and him to make advances,” she says. “It was the message behind the dress code which the students were upset by.”
PVUSD officials are not commenting on the matter since it involves personnel issues. In a letter sent to parents, district officials say that Daucher’s statement “was not aligned with our community beliefs.”
“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 address comments that could disrupt the learning environment,” the letter read.
In advance of the upcoming talks, students are invited to fill out an online survey to help participants 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 of creating school-wide policy could inspire other schools to do the same. “We could see a very positive change collectively.”