The Durham County School Board voted unanimously Thursday night to make significant changes to its dress code, ending an era where students were sometimes shamed for showing a stray bra strap, barred from wearing cultural hairstyles, and told to cover up body parts as mundane as shoulders so that male students and teachers wouldn’t be “distracted.” 

The new dress code is designed to be more inclusive and permissive of individual expression, dialing back guidelines that many argued disproportionately targeted—and were more frequently enforced for—women, students of color, and students with curvier body types.

“Why are guys allowed to wear basketball [tank tops], but [women are] deemed a distraction because we have bigger chests or our dresses are short?” one student asked in a January podcast from Riverside High School’s student newspaper. “Why are you looking? That’s not our problem.”

Students are now allowed to wear most any item of clothing, so long as it is opaque and covers their “private areas.” The new dress code abolishes the notorious “fingertip rule,” which required any skirt or pair of shorts to extend beyond the fingertips of a student’s extended arm (and varied wildly depending on body type); it permits tank tops, crop tops, leggings, yoga pants, and ripped jeans; and it no longer penalizes students for showing bra straps or underwear waistbands.

The code expressly allows students to “dress and style their hair for school in a manner that expresses their individuality and culture,” including traditionally Black hairstyles and hair coverings like locs, braids, and geles which have been contested in recent years; last year, for example, a Hillside High School softball player was forced to cut off her beaded braids in the middle of a game when the umpire deemed the hairstyle inappropriate. 

Clothing and jewelry that depict profanity or violence remain banned, as do articles that promote illegal substance use, indicate gang affiliation, or sport discriminatory or hateful imagery like confederate flags or swastikas. While the new code was originally drafted to allow hats and hoodies, they will  prohibited in the final version of the code due to feedback from school administrators.

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