Board-wide school dress code gives students more freedom, applies to all schools

·4 min read
The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board's recent dress code applies at all 145 of its schools. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC - image credit)
The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board's recent dress code applies at all 145 of its schools. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC - image credit)

Ottawa's largest school board recently changed its dress code to give students more freedom in the choice of their clothes, and it applies system-wide.

The change at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) was made in part to avoid student and staff discomfort when trying to determine what's acceptable and what isn't, according to the board.

Until the updated code was made official in April, each of the board's 145 schools had their own rules.

Now, students at all schools must adhere to the following. Student clothing must:

  • cover the groin, buttocks and nipples with material that is not see-through or transparent;

  • include more than underwear as the only layer of clothing;

  • include footwear with consideration for health and safety;

  • ensure the student's face is not fully obscured;

  • not include wording or graphics that reasonably could be construed as promoting or symbolizing hate or discrimination, drugs, alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, illegal activity, profanity, nudity, pornography; or that incites violence or harassment; or threatens health and safety; and

  • comply with the school uniform code if one is established.

"We will of course keep certain limits. There are still certain areas of the body that must be covered and certain restrictions related to health and safety," Colin Anderson, the board's system principal of safe schools, told Radio-Canada in English.

"We want to avoid situations where school staff feel compelled to judge whether or not student clothing is appropriate. It is uncomfortable for both staff and students."

Fiona Collienne/Radio-Canada
Fiona Collienne/Radio-Canada

'Allows me to be more confident'

Cairine Wilson Secondary School students Isabella Daniel and Breanne Greenslide said they welcome the change of approach.

"I often got in trouble for wearing clothes like this," Greenslide said, pointing to her sweater that ends above the navel. "I was sent to the office almost every day, but that has completely changed."

"I love fashion, I love trying different outfits. The new dress code allows me to be more confident when I'm in the hallway. Look, today I wore a Pride flag around my neck; I got nothing but compliments," Daniel added.

Fiona Collienne/Radio-Canada
Fiona Collienne/Radio-Canada

Changing the dress code didn't happen overnight. The work to update this and other policies began in 2019 and involved consultation with students, parents and all school staff, the board said.

In general, parents were more supportive of the change. For teaching staff, managing the change after previous rules related to caps and hoodies was more complicated. In some cases teachers had been enforcing rules that no longer apply, Anderson said.

Overall, the transition seems to be going well and taking the time to explain to everyone the reasons for the change plays an important role, he added.


Recent protest at French Catholic high school

Student dress codes have generated headlines in Ottawa in recent weeks.

On May 13, several hundred students demonstrated in front of École secondaire catholique Béatrice-Desloges in Orléans to protest a dress code enforcement blitz they considered humiliating.

The school board — Conseil des écoles catholiques du Centre-Est (CECCE) — apologized the next day, and the principal of the school later transferred into another role at the board.

The CECCE's schools each have their own rules about student clothing. In an emailed statement for this story, the board said a review has been underway since last fall.

Francis Ferland/CBC
Francis Ferland/CBC

Ottawa's French public school board, Conseil des écoles publiques de l'Est de l'Ontario, wrote that it will review its policies starting next year. Currently, each school has its own rules.

"We are aware of the importance of this issue and approach it with sensitivity and respect," the board wrote in an emailed statement in French. "We reiterated to all staff at our schools to use good judgment and flexibility in enforcing the dress code."

At the Ottawa Catholic School Board, all schools establish their own rules "consistent with the board's philosophy, vision statement and Catholic social teaching," according to the board's policy.

Snippets of dress codes in Ottawa and Gatineau, 2021-22:

  • École secondaire publique De La Salle in Ottawa (CEPEO): "You are asked not to wear revealing or unacceptable clothing such as shorts and very short skirts."

  • École secondaire catholique Garneau in Ottawa (CECCE): "Students must dress appropriately for the school environment."

  • École polyvalente Nicolas-Gatineau in Gatineau (Centre de services scolaire des Draveurs): "Bermuda shorts and skirt must be regulation, i.e. mid-thigh (10 cm above the knee)."

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