School to create new dress code after 11-year-old students say it’s sexist

Ava McDermott, 11, petitioned against her school's dress code after realizing that it was sexist and unfair. (Photo: Lisa McDermott)

Two fifth-grade students in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, are impacting change when it comes to their school dress code after expressing that they’ve been treated unfairly.

Ava McDermott is one of the students who at just 11 years old recognized that the way she was being disciplined for the clothes she wore to school was different from that of her male classmates.

Her mother, Lisa McDermott, tells Yahoo Lifestyle that on Friday, Ava was pulled out of class with a few of her friends and given a “stern reminder” of the school’s dress code. She was wearing jean shorts and a V-neck T-shirt to school that day.

“Some of the girls were addressed by name. My daughter was one of them, as in, ‘Ava, those shorts are a little short,’” Lisa explains. “No disciplinary action was taken, but the girls were upset and angry because not only did they feel they were all dressed pretty normally, they were mad because this wasn’t the first time this had happened and they never saw the boys getting spoken to about dress code violations.”

The students also noticed that the language administrators were using when disciplining female students was very one-sided and almost always referred to the way that their clothing would affect the boys in the class. Ava first called attention to it at the beginning of the year when she and her classmates were told not to wear tank tops to gym class because the “boys can’t concentrate.” The latest instance was the last straw, Lisa says.

“When I got home from work on Friday, Ava and her friend Sophia were justifiably upset and they were writing out a list of grievances and reasons why the dress code is sexist and the way it’s enforced is damaging to their self-esteem,” Lisa says. “I helped them create a petition on Change.org, because you have to be at least 13 and they are only 11, but they wrote all of the text by themselves.”

Their Change.org petition includes learnings from the students’ social studies class where they’ve been taught about gender inequality and even offers suggestions on how to change the dress code to make it fairer.

Portsmouth Public Schools Superintendent Ana Riley responded to the petition on Tuesday morning, saying that the school committee would be addressing Ava and Sophia’s concerns by working to create a district-wide dress code that would take suggestions from the community into account.

“The School Committee is going to address dress code with a district policy that will hopefully end all of these unnecessary self-esteem and confidence crushing conversations,” Riley wrote in an email to Lisa. “We want to create a model student dress code that is safe, not sexist and is understood by all.”

Riley didn’t immediately respond to Yahoo Lifestyle’s request for comment. However, she explained to Lisa her the email that the school district was planning on having this conversation within the next month so that the dress code could be implemented when school starts in the fall.

Lisa says that she is “extremely proud of my daughter’s courage and activism,” which will not only impact her but also students throughout the district who felt restricted by the dress code — including Ava’s younger sister.

“She’s a strong young woman. She has lots of strong female role models in her life. I’m very proud of her,” Lisa says of her 11-year-old daughter. “She has a younger sister who’ll be in the middle school in a couple of years who won’t be subjected to that kind of humiliation thanks to her big sister.”

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