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Houston principal’s dress code for parents ignites culture war

Carlotta Outley Brown | Houston Chronicle via AP

Carlotta Outley Brown, the principal of James Madison High School in Houston, has started a culture war.

Appalled by the attire being worn by parents coming to the school, Brown enacted a dress code that bans do-rags and pajama bottoms, as well as sagging pants and ripped up jeans that show more skin than they cover.

Brown, an acclaimed educator, is defending herself against outraged parents as well as the Houston Federation of Teachers.

Zeph Capo, the president of the Houston Federation of Teacher, called the ban as it relates to headscarves “classist” and “belittling.”

Yes, but there’s all kinds of head wraps.

There’s the satin cap that you sleep in. There’s the head-rag that your mother used to wear when she was cleaning the house. And there’s the carefully gathered and knotted head garb that singer Alicia Keys made fashionable some years ago.

Brown’s talking about the wear-around-the-house variety.

She told a TV interviewer that one incident that triggered the new dress code was a parent coming up to school in a see through blouse that revealed her breasts and nipples.

“We have to show them what is right and what is correct…You don’t wear a swim suit to school you wear it to the beach,” the principal said.

Bravo for her.

It takes a lot of guts to even bring this subject up. And young black women are going to push back hard on any kind of bonnet ban.

But this isn’t really about black girls and their hair.

Our mothers would have had a fit if we stepped outside of the house looking like we just rolled out of bed, and many of us upheld those same standards.

Brown is trying to teach her students that what’s acceptable attire in your neighborhood isn’t necessarily acceptable in other environments.

She doesn’t want these young people to miss out on an opportunity because they didn’t know any better than to show up in a skirt barely covering their behinds or wearing jeans so low, their underwear is exposed.

She’s also hoping to influence parents.

Because while teachers are trying to model the behaviors that will help high school students achieve success after they’ve left the building, too many parents are doing the opposite.

In some instances, parents don’t even want principals telling their kids what to wear to school.

When Melanie V. Beatty-Sevier tried to establish a dress code at King High School that barred students from dressing “provocatively,” it was the beginning of the end of a short tenure.

Although Beatty-Sevier’s mistake was tying sexual abuse cases with girls dressing “provocatively,” parents should have understood the nuance. Instead, the Local School Council, already at odds with the principal, blasted those statements as “reckless,” and the seasoned principal was forced out shortly afterwards.

Houston’s principal has vowed to stay the course.

In a letter to parents, Brown spelled out her reasoning for the unprecedented ban:

“To prepare our children and let them know daily, the appropriate attire they are supposed to wear when entering a building, going somewhere, applying for a job, or visiting someone outside of the home setting,” she wrote.

The ban includes “hair rollers, jeans that are torn from your buttocks all the way down; leggings that are showing your bottom; very low cut tops or revealing tops that you can see your breasts; and short shorts.”

Men will not be permitted in the building or on the premises in undershirts or sagging pants.

Parents might not like to be told what they can or cannot wear when they interact with teachers and administrators.

But frankly, to argue that these parents can’t find something other than pajamas and ripped up jeans to wear to school is “ghettoizing” them.

Poverty isn’t at the heart of these fashion trends.

When these parents go out to the club or other social events, I can assure you they aren’t showing up in do-rags and hair rollers.

Parents of high school students ought to know how to dress when they come up to school to interact with their children’s teachers.

The fact that so many of them don’t points to a bigger problem.

But as Maya Angelou so famously said: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

“It’s about academic excellence and doing what we need to do so our children can be successful,” Brown said.