Mounting research shows that students of color, and students who are disabled often receive harsher punishment in the school system as opposed to their White peers. As if the pandemic is not a large enough disruption to kids’ education, authorities in school systems are further interrupting the education of children with harsh punishments such as expulsion for trivial infractions. This is known as a zero-tolerance policy in schools. It has been found that disparities in punishment have landed hardest on disabled students and children of color when compared to their nondisabled peers and other students.

What’s more, the pandemic has caused trauma in many students, leading to a rise in behavioral issues. Rather than punish children for “acting out,” they need adults’ empathy. The Department of Education (ED) is seeking solutions for less harsh school discipline policies. New guidance from ED issued in mid-July bolsters the protections of students of color and students with disabilities from harsh discipline but does not address dress codes specifically. Meanwhile, a school in Texas just issued a dress code that prohibits all students from wearing hoodies and girls from wearing dresses to make them appear “more professional.” Which begs the question, what can be done by those in power to prevent harsh disciplinary actions for minor offenses like dress codes?

Harsh discipline affects young girls of color, especially Black girls as “they are more likely to be suspended, expelled, harassed, and bullied than their White peers — all too often for their clothing choices.” The reality of young girls of color is that they are not being set up for a successful future as a result of having their education interrupted from being “dress coded.” It is ultimately useless for dress codes to exist when students of color are the ones primarily being targeted by these zero-tolerance policies. And I experienced being dress coded firsthand.

Due to the enforcement of my middle school’s dress code policy, I found myself often an unwitting target. Although I never wore anything that could be deemed inappropriate, my attire always caught the attention of school officials. Frequently, I was stopped in the halls on the way to class to have my outfit examined. I always wondered why school administrators would ignore my White peers who had the same type of outfit on as they walked the same hallways. My shorts were the same length as theirs, but mine were described as, “too revealing” in order to justify their concerns, and that because I was Black, I was naturally shaped differently from the other girls. I would have to run to make it to class in time, and the tardies prompted even more punishment. I started wearing oversized jeans and shirts so as to not attract attention from school administrators, but it led me to getting bullied by my White and/or male-presenting peers for not dressing “like a girl.” This unnecessary punishment from school administrators sent the wrong message to me, and to the other girls of color which was our attire was more important than our education. It distracted and derailed us from the goal, which was to receive an education.

Disrupting the education of students of color through zero-tolerance policies, hinders their success and creates a negative image of themselves. Students of color and students with disabilities are targeted more often than their White, able-bodied peers as a result of zero-tolerance policies. The solution to this is that school leaders and teachers need to create safe spaces for students of color, especially Black girls as they face higher rates of harsh punishment than their White female peers. Rather than enforcing punitive zero-tolerance policies, school administrators should implement restorative justice, which offers a less punitive, more positive alternative to addressing school-based conflicts and violence. Dress codes and codes of conduct can be co-developed with students and their families to make sure there’s no racial or gender-based discrimination. Through restorative justice, a little family collaboration, and overall empathy, school leaders and educators can ensure that future generation of children can learn uninterrupted in a positive environment.


Tameia Williams is a summer 2022 communications intern at Ed Trust.