Carlisle School revises dress code

by Karina Coombs

The Carlisle School administration has decided to temporarily delay enforcement of the new dress code after learning that many students and parents were unaware of the revisions, which went into effect this fall. Superintendent Joan Wickman planned to meet with the middle school student council this week to discuss the topic.

Unchanged are prohibitions against wearing hats and sunglasses in the classroom, or clothing with derogatory, offensive or illegal messages or symbols. The previous dress code also prohibited tank tops, short shorts and baggy pants. Under the new dress code, underwear may not be visible at any time and clothing must cover students adequately whether sitting or standing. Shorts must have a minimum length of five inches from the bottom of a front hip pocket. Extremely short shorts, referred to as “Daisy Dukes” are not allowed. The administration also reserves the right to further determine what may or may not be appropriate clothing at all times.

The dress code, which applies only to middle school students during school hours, was drafted by the Carlisle School Advisory Council over several months and approved last spring by the former Superintendent Joyce Mehaffey. It became part of the student handbook over the summer. Elementary Principal Dennet Sidell is the co-chair of the nine-member Advisory Council, made up of teachers, parents and community members. The council reviews various aspects of the school and makes recommendations for improvements. Sidell explained that the dress code is a guideline, rather than a formal school policy. As such, it is at the discretion of the superintendent and does not require school committee approval.

Review process

It was an email from a concerned parent that first brought Sidell’s attention to the existing dress code. New to the school last year, Sidell learned that while there had not been many dress code issues over the years, teachers were beginning to see a shift as middle school fashions changed.

Sidell brought the dress code issue to an advisory council meeting in the fall of 2012, and the group decided to look at the existing guideline and see what other local schools were doing. Sidell said that the group found differences among the nine schools they examined. “Some were specific and some were general. We looked at our community and how we could make [a dress code] Carlisle-friendly.” The group agreed that the existing code was too vague and needed to be more specific. Parent and teacher members of the council talked about the changes they wanted to make and by March had a document they were ready to pass to the superintendent.

Sidell explained that Mehaffey then turned the document over to the middle school Student Council for its feedback, wanting the students to be part of the process. “[The students] took a few things out and put some new things in,” he said. “The ‘no Daisy Dukes’ was their idea.” When the students returned the document, the School Advisory Council made no further changes, pleased with the students’ modifications.


The presence of dress codes or uniforms in public school is not a new trend, but the specifics have changed a lot over the last century, most since the early 1960s, when dress codes required tucked-in shirts for boys and mandatory dresses or skirts for girls. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 56% of public schools have dress codes, with 19% of them requiring uniforms—most of these in more urban areas.

While there is no detailed dress code at the Concord-Carlisle High School, the student handbook emphasizes that students’ clothing should be “clean, within reasonable bounds of modesty, not hazardous to their health and safety, and not disruptive to the educational process.” Disruptive is explained as clothing that displays messages or symbols that promote illegal activities, are vulgar, or otherwise upset, insult, or demean others.

Getting the word out

When Wickman began working at the Carlisle School this fall, she knew that there was a new dress code in effect, but understood it to have been already introduced and understood by the school community. When it became clear this was not the case, Wickman put enforcement aside and went to speak with the student council.

“Implementation is tricky with this age,” she said. When it comes to introducing policies, she noted, “It’s more effective if it is student to student.” Wickman was scheduled to meet with the Student Council on October 9 to discuss how to effectively communicate the policy changes with the entire middle school student body. “I’m eager to work with the students,” explained Wickman.

Enforcement challenges

Admitting that dress code enforcement is not an easy issue, particularly given the middle school students’ stage of development, both Wickman and Sidell feel the policy is in the best interest of the students. “We don’t want to have a policy and not enforce it,” said Sidell. Both Wickman and Sidell also explained that they do not want clothing to be a distraction to the learning process.

The administrators also noted the special care involved in speaking to students about clothing, acknowledging some of the guidelines specifically address the clothing of female students. “We don’t have much of a problem with boys and baggy pants here,” said Sidell. Wickman explained that male teachers might not feel comfortable commenting on a female student’s appearance and vice versa and is planning on speaking with Carlisle Public School (CPS) staff to gauge their reactions and formulate a process.

While many schools specify what will happen to a student who breaks the dress code, Carlisle does not. “We didn’t put in repercussions [in the handbook] so it wasn’t so black and white,” said Sidell, explaining that he would talk with students on a case-by-case basis. “We walk a fine line in terms of our judgment, while also wanting to respect the family’s views,” said Wickman.

The 2013-2014 CPS handbook may be found online at: under the General Information tab. ∆