Sanctions Connected to Dress Code Violations in Secondary School Handbooks

Article excerpt

This study identifies and evaluates sanctions for dress code violations in secondary school handbooks. Sanctions, or consequences for breaking rules, vary along seven interrelated dimensions: source, formality, retribution, obtrusiveness, magnitude, severity, and pervasiveness. A content analysis of handbooks from 155 public secondary schools identified sanctions connected to dress code violations. Twenty-six sanctions were found; two sanctions not found were corporal punishment and student apology. Policy violations and related sanctions generally were found to be hierarchical in nature.The disciplinary sanctions were aligned with the definition of discipline as "punishment inflicted by way of correction and training."

Newspaper headlines during the 1990s proclaimed the prevalence of suspension as a sanction for dress code violations:

* "Two students suspended for pierced eyebrows" ("Two Students Suspended," 1994).

* "Student may be suspended for not wearing uniiorm" ("Student May be Suspended," 1996).

* "Girl suspended for wearing black lipstick back in class" ("Girl Suspended for Wearing," 1997).

* "Unshaven student suspended" ("Unshaven Student Suspended," 1999).

Indeed, in a survey of 100 secondary school administrators, dress code violations were ranked eighth among the top 10 causes of students being suspended (Rosen, 1997). Dress code violations are violations of school rules, specifically rules or norms for student appearance, provided via dress codes in school handbooks. Handbooks also contain disciplinary consequences or sanctions for dress code violations.

The frequency of newspaper reports and the continuing debate over uniforms and dress codes calls for baseline data regarding sanctions for dress code violations. The purpose of this study was to identify and to evaluate sanctions for dress code violations in secondary school handbooks.


Norms regarding dress are standards or rules that specify how people should or should not look under given circumstances (Workman & Freeburg, 2000a). In the school environment, sanctions for breaking rules are assumed to motivate students to conform to norms (Rosen, 1997; see Table 1). Sanctions are contained within the school's discipline policy.

Sanctions evolve over time and are adapted to specific schools. State school codes do not establish sanctions, but do identify sanctions that are forbidden. For example, the Illinois School Code states that discipline policies "should not include slapping, paddling or prolonged maintenance of students in physically painful positions" (Maintenance of Discipline, 1998).

Characteristics of Sanctions

Sanctions vary along seven dimensions: source, formality, retribution, obtrusiveness, magnitude, severity, and pervasiveness (Workman & Freeburg, 2000b). The dimensions are interrelated; for example, severe sanctions are often formal.

Source. Sanctions may originate from internal or external sources. Internal sanctions occur when individuals enforce norms through inner motivation. A majority of students conform to dress codes, some because of internal motivation-for example, they believe that appropriate dress contributes to school performance. External sanctions occur when members of society attempt to enforce norms for others. A verbal reprimand is a relatively mild external sanction. For example, a male student who wore a sundress to school was reprimanded by his principal who said that the attire was inappropriate and a "sick joke" ("Dress Code," 1995). More severe external sanctions include suspension and expulsion. For example, a student who wore a T-shirt with a picture of "The Penguin" to school was expelled ("Batman T-shirt Spurs," 1992).

Formality. Formal sanctions refer to prescribed consequences that have little leeway in their application to policy violations. Formal sanctions include detention and suspension. …