Aryani Duppada rushed through the hallways at Denmark High School one afternoon to make it to her next class when a teacher suddenly stopped her and pulled her aside. The teacher gave her a warning for violating the dress code.
Duppada remembers her outfit from that day. She wore a crop top with high-waisted jeans. She said those paying attention could see her stomach only when she raised her arms to fix her ponytail.
When she got home, she hopped into a group chat online with some friends to tell them about the incident, and her female peers shared stories of being ‘dress coded’ at school.
One friend shared that she was sitting in class when her teacher, who is a man, told her to go to the front office because she was wearing a tank top with thin straps.
“That is unfair and it’s uncomfortable for my friend, who is a female, to be dress coded by not just a male teacher but also in front of the entire class,” Duppada said. “It’s embarrassing.”
After hearing this story, Duppada decided to take action.
She created an Instagram page called “Am I Distracting You?”
The movement has grown significantly over the last couple of months, leading to real change toward updating the dress code not just at Denmark, but at every school in the Forsyth County Schools System.
At the time, though, Duppada had no idea the page would grow the way it did.
She announced in a post that she and a group of other students would be holding a protest at Denmark High School in September, inviting other students to create signs and talk beforehand at the Sharon Forks and Post Road libraries.
Then, waves of messages started to pour in.
Many of them were from students, asking for ways they could help or participate in a protest at their own schools. This led to protests against the dress code at other high schools in the county, including Alliance Academy for Innovation.
Seeing how many students wanted to participate, Duppada decided to partner with six other students to write a letter to the school administration that each student could sign.
This group was led by students Oviya Kumar, Connor Kazemi, Amanda Gibson, Braeden Martin, Ryan Liming and Turner Davis.
On the day of the protest, around 75 students gathered in Denmark’s courtyard before the start of the school day, wearing tank tops with signs taped to the front.
Some read, “Instead of teaching girls to hide their bodies, teach boys women are not sexual objects,” or “Teach boys to listen, not girls to cover up.”
Duppada stood up on one of the courtyard tables and looked out at the crowd of students staring back at her.
“It felt surreal,” Duppada said. “I did not expect that many people to be there, but it was amazing to see how many people were supporting this movement. And it wasn’t just girls. It was guys, too.”
After the protest, the group of students made their way to the school’s front office, delivering the letter outlining their concerns with the dress code to Principal Kim Oliver.
As soon as they gave her the letter, Duppada said Oliver told them she would love to sit down and have a discussion with them about the dress code and what they can do to make it better.
“I really did appreciate her wanting to sit down and have a conversation with me and try to come to an understanding,” Duppada said.
The student-led group ended up meeting with Oliver every week over the next month or so, going over the current dress code and making notes on what they could remove or make better.
The students said one of their biggest concerns with the current dress code is the vague and subjective wording that they said targets female students.
Section K of the dress code states that skirts and shorts should be an “acceptable length in order to avoid any disruption of a normal school day.” There is no definition of what would be considered an acceptable length written out in the dress code. It states the final decision on the matter is left up to the principal or their designee.
Kumar said sections such as these are not only pointed at female students, but it also causes students to question what they truly can or cannot wear to school. A district spokesperson, however, stated that the dress portion of the code of conduct does not specify gender or sex.
“I think that it’s very subjective …. How are we supposed to know what is considered short shorts?” Duppada said. “What we consider to be short might not be the same for administrators.”
The students also pointed out the introduction to the dress code, which states, “Apparel or appearance that tends to draw attention to an individual rather than to a learning situation must be avoided.”
The district stated that this portion of the dress code is in reference to another section of the code, which outlines that students are not allowed to wear clothing featuring racial or ethnic slurs, hate speech, gang affiliations, vulgar or obscene language or imagery and more.
It goes on to state that school administration is responsible for determining what is appropriate, and the school principal is allowed to adjust the dress code on a case-by-case basis.
Kumar said the language used in this section is subjective and places blame on the student for their appearance or body being a distraction.
“It shouldn’t be the student’s fault, and they shouldn’t have to feel embarrassed in the middle of class,” Kumar said.
Kazemi believes that the dress code should, overall, be a way of protecting students and making sure they feel safe and comfortable at school. Instead, he said it serves as a way of morally attacking certain kids.
To better the dress code, he said it needs clearly defined rules written in a way students can understand.
“I thought it should just be more straightforward,” Kazemi said. “This is what you can, and this is what you can’t wear.”
Safe and confident
After talking with Oliver about their concerns and recommendations they would make to the current dress code, the principal reached out to Todd Shirley, the chief operations officer for Forsyth County Schools.
He asked the group of students to send him their recommendations for an updated dress code. So that’s what they did.
They created a student-led team to put the draft together, working with administrators and researching other, more inclusive dress codes that have seen success in school systems in the U.S.
“The administration and staff were very supportive of this,” Kazemi said. “It really did seem like they wanted to help, and they cared about what we were doing and our cause.”
Throughout the process, Kumar said they met regularly with the school’s administration and would give the students valuable feedback that eventually led them to a comprehensive draft that they felt comfortable with.
The student’s new draft of the dress code currently reads:
“This dress code encourages equitable education and does not reinforce stereotypes. It shall be enforced without bias based on sex, gender identity, body type or size, religion, race, gender expression, sexual orientation, class demographics or culture.
This dress code hopes to accomplish comfort for students mentally and physically while keeping students safe in accordance to their clothing and appearance.”
The draft goes on to list what clothing students must wear and what items are prohibited, laying out what specific parts of the body must be covered by a piece of clothing.
Kazemi said they recently sent their recommendations to Shirley and plan to continue working with him.
According to Board of Education policy, "The student Code of Conduct goes through a revision process each school year. Input for this revision begins at the school level as the principal of each school requests input from the Local School Council, staff members and students. Administrative staff members from each of our schools meet in December to collectively revise the Code of Conduct. The Code is finalized after the current legislative session so that new legislation would be included in the Codes of Conduct."
Leaders with the district said they would review the recommendations provided by the students as part of this annual review process in the spring. Any changes made will be presented to the Board of Education prior to the start of the next school year. As part of this process each year, the district also reviews dress codes that have seen success in school systems in the U.S.
The students said they are excited to see a change to the school district’s dress code so students don’t have to worry about whether they will be sent to the office or sent home for their clothing choices.
“[I want students] to come to school and feel safe in what they’re wearing and just confident overall,” Kumar said.
Correction: This story has been updated to include statements from Forsyth County Schools.