Kellan Barbee, a senior at Central High School, has a simple style: navy fleece sweater, baggy gray pants.
He’s never had a problem with the dress code, but a lot of people he knows do. And last year he decided it was time for an update.
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“It was created before the majority of our secondary school pupils were born,” says Barbee, who is one of four student representatives on the Manchester School Board. “The original language of this one is from the eighties.”
After months of discussions with pupils and district administrators, Barbee rewrote the dress code, which won final approval from the Manchester School Board last week. This is the first district policy written by a student.
The new code allows several items that were strictly prohibited, including spaghetti straps, tube tops, ripped jeans, rags, beanies and hats. The district will continue to ban hoodies, see-through clothing, and clothing displaying messages containing profanity and hate speech, among other things.
Students have been urging the school board to update its dress code for years. Some of the pressure came from Youth Organizers United, a Manchester youth group affiliated with the progressive Granite State Organizing Project. This group also helped lobby for student representation on the school board, which was approved by city voters in 2019.
Some students say the old code targeted female students, black students and tall students. Non-compliant individuals faced a range of consequences, from being asked to call their parents to bring an outfit from home or finding clothes in lost and found, to being detained or suspended.
Mackenzie Verdiner, a sophomore at West High School and a member of Youth Organizers United, said under the old rules, her friends with larger bodies had a “dress code” more often.
“I think what people might not realize is that not everyone has access to new clothes,” she says. “Clothes they’ve been wearing for a while may not fit them as they get older. They may not show more skin, but they don’t have access to newer or better-fitting clothes.
Hats were another sticking point in the dress code debate.
Barbee says the district was reluctant to drop its ban on hats, but after hearing about homeless peers who didn’t have access to hair products and showers, Barbee made hats a priority.
Ernest Dowell, a junior at West High, says there were other good reasons for allowing hats. He and other black students pay a lot of attention to their hair, and on days when they don’t have the time or the right products, du-rags, hats and beanies are their go-tos.
“Sometimes it’s like: I wake up and [my hair] is crushed on one side because I lay on it weirdly, so it’s like: I want to wear a hat or a hoodie, ”he explained.
The new dress code states that enforcement will be fair and non-discriminatory based on a protected class. Barbee, who wrote the code with input from other students and checked it with the district attorney, said the new policy has been criticized. But he thinks it accomplished the students’ mission.
“My aim is not to impose my own opinions on dress –
on the students, on the staff, on the district. It’s about making the student voice heard,” he said.