On October 6, Eboni Banks, a mother living in Waldorf, Maryland, got a phone call. It was her sixth-grader calling from the school she attends — Mattawoman Middle School — because her outfit had violated the dress code and she needed Banks to bring her jeans. She was wearing leggings and the shirt she was wearing was apparently not long enough, violating the school’s dress code.
When Banks arrived she found her daughter, 11 years old at the time, missing class to sit in the nurse’s office because of what she wore: a black short-sleeved shirt that hit her waist, a pink sweater jacket and a pair of pink and black leggings. According to the school’s dress code, the last piece of the outfit was the offending article, as they have deemed that leggings could potentially be a distraction.
“I couldn’t believe they forced her to miss reading,” Banks told the Washington Post. School administrators told both Banks and her daughter that day that if girls wear leggings, to school, they must also wear shirts that end at least to their fingertips. These efforts are meant to conceal the thighs and back sides of young girls like Banks’ daughter — the body part they feel may draw attention at school during the day.
Banks has decided to challenge that dress code, which she believes unfairly targets female students. She has taken the issue to the school administrators, the school board, and even to federal officials, where she filed a civil rights complaint under gender bias.
Banks wrote in her complaint that “administrators are being allowed to discriminate”as well as “engage in body shaming behaviors.”
As leggings have grown in popularity as a style staple over the past decade, they have become an issue for many schools in regard to dress codes, Jo Paoletti, a University of Maryland professor and dress historian who focuses on gender expression, reportedly told the Washington Post. Across the United States there have been challenges to dress codes that students and parents alike feel are hyper-focused on girls’ attire that school district officials have deemed suggestive or too revealing. In response, some schools have turned to uniforms as a viable solution.
“The definition of what is sexy or inappropriate changes all the time,” Paoletti reportedly said. “Fashion keeps inventing things, and then the dress code writers have to figure out whether to be outraged and ban things.”
In some schools, the female students have collectively objected to the dress code rules that they say are against girls, created with the sole purpose of keeping boys from getting distracted. Some have taken to social media, using such hashtags as #iamnotadistraction, while others, like the girls at a middle school in Frederick County, Maryland, recently staged a protest in an effort to affect change.
Banks reportedly said her daughter is on the honor roll at her school. She loves school and aspires to become a doctor. The mother is outraged that her studious daughter missed 20 minutes of her reading class “over a couple inches of fabric.”
“My concern is that it has a negative impact on girls and their self-esteem and how they feel about their bodies,” she reportedly said. “They’re going to be pulled out of class and missing instructional time because of this nonsense? It’s just so blatantly discriminatory, and it’s so sexist. It made my blood boil.”
Banks told The Post she is currently waiting to hear back from the federal government regarding the civil rights complaint that she filed. An Education Department spokesman reportedly said that the Office for Civil Rights will not publicly confirm whether it has received any particular complaint; if they decide to open an investigation, the office informs the parties involved and then the public. Banks said her daughter was upset about this issue the day that it happened, but has since let it go. Banks has continued her pursuit of what she feels like is justice because she thinks it is time for a larger conversation.
According to the Post, Banks said school officials talked about the dress code rules in passing at Mattawoman’s back-to-school night, but was also told that the dress code was not enforced. The day the dress code was enforced against her daughter, Banks alleges that she saw other girls at school wearing leggings like her daughter was, and were free to go on as they pleased.
Banks took this discrepancy to the then-principal. Banks reportedly said that the principal told her she made the leggings rule in particular because Black and Latino female students tend to have “badonkadonks” or “junk in the trunk,” a pop culture term for a large buttocks, that Black and Latina women tend to be stereotyped with.
“I was totally shocked,” Banks told the Post. Banks, her daughter, and the school’s principal are all Black. The school has a student body that is 74 percent black and 8 percent Hispanic.
“‘Junk in the trunk’ and ‘badonkadonks’ are not in my vernacular,” Principal Sonia Jones told The Washington Post in an interview. She said, “I would never refer to a student’s body parts in such a way when I was talking to a parent or anyone else. It’s unprofessional.”
The principal said in the interview that she has made a point to emphasize the importance of the dress code in several ways, including at parent meetings and during morning announcements. At back-to-school night she always she receives a standing ovation on the subject of the dress code, she said. She insists that the leggings rule does not discriminate against Black or Latina female students.
“Boys have to pull their jeans up over their hips,” she reportedly said. “We have expectations for all of the children.”
School district officials in Charles County, where Banks’ daughter attends school, say that Banks’ daughter was not singled out. They used the analogy of a police officer issuing a speeding ticket, with the Washington Post, that not all violators are caught at any given time.
“The young lady was in violation,” said Marvin Jones, an executive director of schools to the Post. “They asked her to do what they would do with any other student.”
This particular dress code is the one for all of in Charles County, and does not allow for what it deems suggestive, provocative or excessively tight clothing. There is not a specific mention of leggings, but principals are allowed create additional rules as needed. All of the the county’s eight middle schools require that leggings be worn with shirts that extend to the fingertips, according to officials.
The students found to be in violation of the dress code are sent to “in-school retention.” It is a detention/in school suspension/study hall hybrid for those students who have committed minor infractions. The students remain here until a parent brings replacement clothing. If parents are not available to bring replacements, administrators offer alternative clothing items, like gym shorts and gym shirts that are longer, district spokeswoman Katie O’Malley-Simpson told the Post.
Marvin Jones reportedly said clothes seen as provocative and therefore distracting to the learning environment at school are prohibited. And he said with leggings in particular, the issue is that of distraction.
“It’s not anything we believe to be unfair to the girls,” he said.