High school principal under fire for suggesting that dress codes prevent sexual abuse: 'Why should we allow students to dress provocatively?'

A high school principal is drawing criticism for connecting sexual abuse to dressing “provocatively” and suggesting that dress codes would solve the problem. (Photo: Getty Images)

A public school district is denouncing one of its principals after she suggested that a stricter dress code could prevent sexual abuse of girls.

Melanie Beatty-Sevier, principal of Dr. Marin Luther King Jr. College Prep High School in the Bronzeville area of Chicago made the stunning remarks at a recent school council meeting recorded by a parent, who re-played the audio during a Board of Education meeting Wednesday. 

“The dress code … as we already stated, there have been sexual abuse cases throughout the city of Chicago,” said Beatty-Sevier on the footage obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times. “These things are put in place to, why, why should we allow students to dress provocatively?” According to local news station ABC 7, some girls claimed to have been told at freshman orientation that they “must be covered from shoulder to knee.” 

On the recording, parents can be heard protesting, saying “Woah!” and “Come on!” 


Melanie Beatty-Sevier, principal of Chicago’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. College Preparatory High School. (Photo: ABC 7/Chicago Sun-Times)

Emily Bolton, press secretary for academics at the Chicago Public Schools district, sent the following statement to Yahoo Lifestyle: “The district strongly disagrees with Principal Beatty-Sevier’s comments and we are evaluating appropriate disciplinary options. Supporting students must be the first priority of every principal, teacher and staff member and comments like these do not align with the district’s values or approach to supporting and protecting students.”

On Thursday night, ABC 7 reports, the local school council met to discuss the remarks. Former parent and council member Kwesi Kuntu told the news station, “I don’t think she’s trying to objectify students with their dress apparel, with sexual misconduct.”  However, another woman expressed regret “to hear her say, and to allude, that somehow dress is responsible or is connected to rap culture.”

Tiana Redmond, 18, an elected student representative on the council who recently graduated from King College Prep tells Yahoo Lifestyle: “The majority of the community is upset and want their former principal back. How students dress does not dictate sexual assault.”

A school council meeting was called at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. College Prep to discuss controversial remarks made by   the principal. (Photo: ABC 7/Chicago Sun-Times)

Several people tweeted their dismay about a philosophy that appeared to burden young girls with preventing their own abuse.

As reported by the Chicago Sun-Times, Beatty-Sevier assumed her position in June and began making suggestions about the dress code (which is not available online) at the school that — ironically — prides itself on “engaging scholars to become social and cultural activists,” according to its website

There are many school dress codes that emphasize how girls look in their clothing, but it’s rare to hear an educator so openly acknowledge a policy’s sexist nature. “A statement like this reflects our societal belief that girls are the bearers of morality, whether it means accepting or rejecting a date or managing others’ sexual frustration,” Christia Brown, a professor of developmental psychology and author of Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “This, of course, is much of why the #MeToo movement was born.” 

One-sided dress codes are often written without consulting the researchers who study — and have proven — that clothing and sex crimes are largely unrelated. “Both schools and scientists do a poor job of reaching out,” says Brown. “There are people dedicated to studying dress codes, yet somehow policies are written without the science.”

Sexual harassment and assault policies should be approached similarly to bullying, she says. “We wouldn’t tell bullied children to change their behavior, yet we still give boys a pass when it comes to sex-related policies” — a frustrating fact, considering that 90 percent of girls are sexually harassed at school during adolescence, according to a study co-authored by Brown and published in the journal Child Development.

“We have an aversion to having honest conversations about sexual misconduct,” says Brown, “Yet we allow it to occur at rampant rates.”

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