Woodford County High School student produces documentary critical of school's dress code

Woodford County High School Principal Rob Akers, left, and student Maggie Sunseri.
Woodford County High School Principal Rob Akers, left, and student Maggie Sunseri.

Maggie Sunseri, who will be a junior in the fall at Woodford County High School, is hoping that a documentary she produced for a filmmaking class about her school's dress code will lead to dialog between students and administrators, and to change.

Titled Shame: A Documentary on School Dress Code, the documentary features female students alleging gender bias. The documentary was posted to YouTube on May 30. It had been viewed 315 times by Saturday.

"I just don't think that our school needs a dress code. I think that it should be eradicated. We are at school to learn. Telling young girls to cover up because it creates a distracting learning environment for boys is the entirely wrong message to send," Maggie. 15, told the Herald-Leader. "Our dress code creates an even bigger distraction for girls, especially when they are being called out in front of their peers and removed from important classes."

Woodford County High School Principal Rob Akers, who Maggie interviewed for the documentary, told the Herald-Leader that he is open to a "better or different policy" and has asked students to give him an alternative solution that he could review. Maggie said she expects that she and other students will do that over the summer.

Among the criteria in the Woodford County High dress code is that students must wear a rounded crewneck shirt or a button-down shirt which may have only the top button open. Shirts must not extend below the collarbone. Shorts and skirts must be knee-length or longer.

When school administrators determine students have violated the dress code, they are allowed to return to class if they have a change of clothes that complies with the dress code, or their families may bring them clothes, Akers said.

The school's written policy said that students may be sent home for failure to comply with the dress code, but Akers said that generally students who aren't able to change clothes are placed in an in-school suspension program.

Akers said in an interview that the Woodford High dress code "is objective, and is more about equity than anything." He said the dress code had been passed by a school-based council before he became principal in 2005, but he said he understood the need for a dress code.

In the documentary, Akers said he previously worked as an assistant principal at a school where there was no dress code. "We had a lot of sexual harassment based on what kids were wearing," Akers said in the documentary. He said male students made inappropriate comments to female students.

At Woodford County High School, said Akers, "we expect a modicum of modesty in the dress for the students." The staff tries to teach students how to dress for various occasions, such as a dance or a job interview.

"I feel like our kids come dressed for success when they come to school," Akers said. He said that he thinks that plays a role — although it might not be quantifiable — in the school being classified as "distinguished/progressing" and a school of distinction in the Kentucky Department of Education's accountability system.

In the documentary, female students said that the dress code is not consistently enforced, and that some staff members enforce the dress codes and others don't. Akers told the Herald-Leader that the complaint was valid, but that teachers did the best they could.

He said three students or fewer each day are sent to his office for violating the dress code.

"Our role is not to keep them out of class," he said.

Maggie's father, Mike Sunseri, said he appreciated "what Principal Akers is trying to accomplish by having 'measurable standards' to enforce a dress code, but trying to quantify appropriate dress is akin to legislating morality, which is nearly always an exercise in futility."

"I think it's wonderful that young people in our community are trying to effect positive change in their educational experience through engaging in constructive activism," Sunseri said.

Akers said, "I support our kids investigating and questioning. That's how we develop capable citizens."