Growing up in the UK in the 90's, we didn't really care whether Bethany got in trouble for wearing her hair long, or Darren got in trouble for wearing a particular t-shirt. Now, however, such trivial stories generate national attention. Why is this the case?

EDIT - I guess the question isn't about dress codes in particular, but why the actions of individual teens and their educators generate so much attention. It wasn't like that when I was growing up. The feeling then was that some kids will do stupid things, and that ultimately it doesn't matter. Now, however, it's on the national news.

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    Examples? At least three links to national news reports of people wearing long hair or t-shirts that has made national news would provide reasonable context.
    – James K
    Nov 20 at 1:32
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    Thanks, though I note that these are not about "long hair", but politcical teeshirts. So the issue is really about free speech, which is how I shall frame my answer
    – James K
    Nov 20 at 2:03
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    Do you mean national news in the UK? Your question implies this, but none of the 3 links provided are UK news channels or websites; in fact, they're all American, which gives them a good reason to be reporting on American news. Nov 20 at 11:19

The matter is not about "wearing long hair" or "Pink on Wednesdays". It is the question:

What are the rights of schools to deny free speech?

And this is a question of national importance. Ultimately, this does matter.

Wearing a political slogan on a tee-shirt is an exercise of free speech. And Free speech is constitutionally protected. But schools also have long standing rights to set dress codes. This can bring a school into conflict with the constitution.

The matter of a government body possibly breaking the fundamental laws of the country is what makes this newsworthy. In many situations matters of national significance to the constitution will arise from legal cases involving individuals (think Roe v. Wade). These cases are newsworthy not because they are about individuals, but because of the wider implications.

  • Got it. As a Brit we don't have those same considerations. There is no constitutional right to free speech, so there is not such an outcry over questions like that. Great answer though! Nov 22 at 16:58
  • @HurricaneCoffee if any sector of society is doing something seemingly irrational it should be a nationally important question. For example, if schools are forcing pupils to have short hair, why is that and is it really a good idea?
    – user253751
    Nov 22 at 17:45

It isn't just about schools, it reflects a general situation.

  • US society is very divided about a number of social issues. The middle ground is eroding. "Social" media is promoting the more extreme and anger-stoking statements to increase the advertising revenue. People get trapped in their filter bubbles.
  • A large number of positions at the local level are individually elected, rather than being appointed by an elected body (and being one step removed from the campaign trail). And even individual budget decisions are put to a vote (this seems to be one of the counties in your example, or at least nearby). So low-level administrative decisions are thrown into the general political scrum.
  • The US is so lawsuit-prone that many people stick to written processes rather than apply a little bit of common sense and compassion in the enforcement of rules, even when that process makes little sense to an outside observer. Breaking the rules could get them fired, enforcing the rules only if it blows up spectacularly. This leads to events like seven-year-olds getting handcuffed.

In a word: Feminism.

People have noticed that dress code enforcement predominantly focused on a girls and not on boys.

These enforcement actions are premised on an underlying theory that girls who dress in an attractive, casual manner are preventing boys who inherently perverted if not protected from this temptation from doing their school work.

But modern feminist sensibilities are that boys have more of a duty to refrain from letting themselves be distracted by what other people are wearing, than girls have a duty to refrain from distracting boys. This emerges from a larger conversation about not blaming the victims of sexual assault based upon the fact that they wore "sexy" clothes, because the duty to obtain consent to sex is not conditioned upon what you are wearing.

Equally important, these enforcement actions generally appear to disregard the idea that the primary purpose of a school is to educate the boys and girls who attend the school. Many modern people believe forcefully that, in all likelihood, it more important for girls to receive education in school without disruption, which should be the most important thing, than it is for them to be bothered about what they are wearing, which decent boys shouldn't care about in the typically borderline cases that are featured.

Dress codes also often reflect outdated senses of propriety about proper clothing for girls that is not in line with ordinary business and away from school wear. As a result, when a girl is wearing clothing that would not ordinarily attract attention in a cafe or walking down the street.

When this is the case, disrupting her education based upon an alleged dress code violation seems like a particularly misplaced set of priorities on the part of the school administrators. These misaligned priorities, more generally, cast doubt on the good intentions and competence as educators of the school administrators seeking to enforce these rules. It suggests that the school administrators are more interested in regulating the sexuality of girls than acting in the best interests of those girls to educate them. This outrages many people. And, anything that outrages many people is newsworthy.

The outrage arises because these are little morality plays in which school administrators disregard prevailing social norms and values that girls are victimized by. Modern people see a lot of dress code enforcement as one more shameless example of sexual harassment that is often more subtle and that women who have moved into the work force are acutely sensitive to themselves.

School administrators once had shared respect and moral authority, but by conducting actions like dress code enforcement that don't appear to be morally justified, have undermined their own moral authority and turns their actions into a story of corruption and venality. Unjust actions by community leaders have always been newsworthy.

Also, the generation gap is gone. Lots of people no longer believe that the girls targeted in dress code enforcement are really just "stupid kids." They think that the girls being targeted are modern women on the path to education, advancement and modernity who are being held back by sexists who are older than them, something that adult men and women can related to more than sexist school administrators. Modern parenting stresses the importance of taking your children's dignity and points of view seriously, not necessarily always agreeing with them, but yes, agreeing with them when they are right and you are wrong, instead of blindly adhering to the view that adults are always right and children are always wrong when in disagreement with them.

It matters because lots of modern people want to live in a modern world and these conflicts involving teens are part of a larger struggle and ongoing simmering behind the scenes conflict over the proper roles of men and women in daily life that is relevant to a large share of the population. It isn't just about what a particular kid is wearing on a particular day, it is about the recurring patterns of behavior, systems, institutions, and attitudes that cause our society to be unfair to women more generally.

In contrast, in the period during which dress code enforcement was not controversial, which ended around the late 1960s in the United States, but apparently lasted longer in the U.K. which was no doubt gradually influenced by media exposure to U.S. culture over several decades, assumptions were different.

In the U.S. case, prior to the late 1960s, there was a widespread assumption that education for girls really was less important than education for boys. There were also widely shared norms about the levels of modesty that were appropriate in women's clothing that prevailed not only in schools, but also in social occasions and in the workplace. And, under the doctrine of in loco parentis there was a widely shared view that regulating the sexuality of girls (and for that matter female teachers) in schools was a important and arguable leading responsibility of school administrators. Finally, the view that dressing in a casual and "sexy" manner communicated an invitation to all comers to have sex with a girl was a widely shared (although certainly not universal) view. When those assumptions ceased to be true, the once uncontroversial actions of school administrators to enforce dress codes became far more controversial.

Finally, these cases attract attention because it doesn't call on any extraordinary experience or expertise to evaluate. All adults and teens have experienced life in school and have deep context from which they can evaluate the actions of the administrators, the students, and the students' parents. They are qualified to independently judge the appropriateness of what a kid is wearing. They are qualified to independently judge the appropriateness of an administrator's actions. And that makes it something that lots of people can have a conversation about as we collectively work out what modern norms about the roles of girls and school administrators and clothing choices are in our society.

  • " anything that outrages many people is newsworthy". Good point. So it's just about generating outrage to generate profits? Makes sense I guess. Nov 20 at 0:51
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    @HurricaneCoffee No. Outrage is a natural product of the inappropriateness of the actions of school administrators in light of modern norms. As norms have changed the same conduct is viewed very differently by society. London used to hang thieves in public every month without controversy. If it did that today, it would likewise incite justified outrage because social norms about proportionality in punishment have changed.
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 20 at 0:57
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    This is rather ranty and has several incoherent passages, such as "These enforcement actions are premised on an underlying theory that girls who dress in an attractive, casual manner are preventing boys who inherently perverted if not protected from this temptation from doing their school work." Nov 20 at 5:14
  • it is a poorly written answer but I don't think it's -5 poor
    – user253751
    Nov 22 at 17:46

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