Challenging the dress code

A recent protest against dress codes and sexual assault policies at Fredericton High School has brought the issue to the forefront for many students and parents in the area, and has Fredericton police reviewing the incident.

(Andrea Bárcenas/AQ)
(Andrea Bárcenas/AQ)

More than 50 students walked out of their last class at Fredericton High School on Friday to protest its “appropriate attire” and sexual assault practices and policies. They were then locked out of the school for the remainder of the day. Those students included members of Fredericton Youth Feminists, a group that launched a change.org petition to remove the dress code and instate a sexual assault policy on Nov. 15, which reached nearly 1,300 signatures in a week.

Sorcha Beirne helped found the group a year and a half ago and said the officer normally stationed at the school met them at a door they tried to re-enter through and behaved inappropriately, pushing group-mate Tia Hanson.

“People held open the door, and he just pushed the girl who was holding it. Well, one of the girls. There was a bunch of people holding it,” Beirne said.

Hanson told CBC News that he placed his hand on her chest and pushed her into the crowd.

Beirne said it wasn’t the first time she had seen the officer be overly-aggressive with a student.

Natasha Mullins, a second-year student at St. Thomas University, is among those who aren’t quite sure what the petition is supposed to accomplish.

“I understand why it’s being discussed, but … I just think that by saying that they’re wearing inappropriate clothes, that’s more inappropriate than the actual wearing of the clothes,” she said.

Shane Thomas, Fredericton High School’s principal, heard about the petition from a colleague who saw it on social media. He said that sections 701 and 703 of the Department of Education’s policies are designed to apply to any sexual assault circumstances.

“Maybe the students need to be informed more about those policies, but when there are issues that come forward, the first thing we do is inform the parents,” said Thomas.

(Andrea Bárcenas/AQ)
(Andrea Bárcenas/AQ)

Beirne said the petition is meant to get the ideas out, mainly surrounding how the dress policy contributes to rape culture and sexual assault.

“That’s a problem, and who gets to decide what’s modest, and what’s appropriate, that depends on who’s enforcing the rules, so in order for a teacher to decide if your shorts are too short, they need to analyze your legs and look at your legs, you know, and you should be able to go to school without teachers looking at you in that way, because you’re just coming to school to learn,” said Beirne.

Lorraine Whalley, the executive director of the Fredericton Sexual Assault Crisis Centre, said that focusing on how someone is dressed draws the conversation away from what sexual assault is and how it happens.

“It’s a smokescreen for what the real reason is, which is that someone is disrespecting another person. They don’t care what that other person wants or feels or needs or is asking for. They’re choosing to act and they do, no matter how somebody is dressed,” said Whalley.

Members of the crisis centre go to schools to give presentations about sexual assault and consent. The most recent presentation was last week, but Whalley says there is a gap in Fredericton’s sexual assault services that leaves teens with no place to turn if they are sexually assaulted but to the police.

(Andrea Bárcenas/AQ)
(Andrea Bárcenas/AQ)

Principal Thomas said that the current “appropriate attire” policy for FHS was made last year in cooperation with “the group that is targeting dress codes” to find a more gender neutral compromise.

Parents have since contacted him with the proposal of school uniforms to end the dress code debate.

“I would hate to see us ever reach that point, where choice is eliminated, because growing up in Canada, of course we get lots of choices, and I’m a big believer in classroom choice theory. You should have choice, and you should be able to make educated choices, and school uniforms kind of eliminate a lot of choice,” said Thomas.

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