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Two girls suspended from East after posting protest fliers

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, May 9, 2014, at 4:25 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, May 9, 2014, at 5:10 p.m.

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Alexis Banzet says she’s tired of girls being told what not to wear at school because it might be a distraction for boys.

“Some of it, I understand,” said Banzet, 17, a junior at East High School in Wichita. “But covering up your shoulders? Why? Why cover your shoulders? … That just doesn’t make sense, and it’s not right.”

On Friday morning, Banzet and another junior, Jessica Saysombat, took about 40 fliers to East High and taped them on walls throughout the school. A few of the fliers contained obscene phrases. All of them questioned the reasons behind certain dress-code rules and said the guidelines “perpetuate rape culture” by putting the burden on women to not be ogled or objectified.

Administrators removed the fliers and suspended both girls from school for two days.

Wichita district officials say the suspension was prompted by the obscenities on some of the fliers, including one that said: “We can put men on the (expletive) moon, but we can’t wear shorts” because that could arouse young men.

Susan Arensman, spokeswoman for the Wichita district, said the girls were suspended not because they spoke out about the issue, but because they posted fliers without administrative approval and because some contained profanity.

“Obviously, with swear words and vulgarities and things of that nature, the administration felt that they had to do more … ” Arensman said.

Banzet said she was surprised by the suspension – she figured school officials would remove the fliers and leave it at that – but she doesn’t regret the harsh language or overall message.

“You’re supposed to have freedom of speech, and … that’s how we talk, that’s how we feel,” she said.

Banzet says she and her friend have researched gender bias in school dress codes and decided to post the fliers to raise awareness about rules they say unfairly target young women.

In the Wichita district dress codes vary from school to school, but most caution students and parents against some universal no-nos: No cleavage. No spaghetti straps or strapless tops. No saggy pants. No bare midriffs. No short shorts or micro-miniskirts. No dark glasses. No hats, bandannas or chains. No clothing that promotes drugs, alcohol or gangs.

At East High, girls and boys can wear sleeveless shirts or tank tops as long as the portion over the shoulder is at least three fingers wide. Shorts or skirts must be at least “fingertip length,” meaning they can’t rise higher than your fingers reach when hanging naturally at your side.

“Most of the rules that are in the dress code pertain to girls,” Banzet said Friday. “You can’t have low-cut shirts, you can’t have this size tank top, this size skirt, this size shirt.

“Instead of shaming girls for wearing shorts and tank tops when it’s hot, why don’t we educate male students and teachers on not oversexualizing normal female body parts?”

The belief has gained momentum across the country recently, as some students have protested dress-code guidelines they see as unfair or unnecessary. Last month, a New Jersey middle school banned girls from wearing strapless dresses to an eighth-grade dance, saying the dresses were “distracting.” Students and parents protested the rule, and the school later compromised by allowing girls to wear single-strap or see-through-strap dresses.

Two years ago, a high school principal in Minnesota drew praise and scorn for an e-mail to parents that asked them to discourage their daughters from wearing yoga pants or tight-fitting leggings because they can “be highly distracting for other students.”

Arensman, the Wichita district spokeswoman, said Friday that dress codes are designed to limit distractions but also to teach students that certain attire isn’t appropriate in certain environments.

“I have a dress code at work. Teachers have dress codes. Professions have dress codes,” Arensman said. “So if we’re really getting students ready for the adult world, that’s also a lesson that needs to be taught.

“You have to figure out where’s the appropriate place to wear that.”

Arensman added that dress code rules apply equally to boys and girls.

Banzet said she disagrees with the philosophy, in schools or elsewhere, that young women’s bodies are inherently “distracting” to young men. She says the approach contributes to a belief that sexual crimes may have something to do with women’s clothes rather than men’s behavior.

“Our goal is to get a more-effective dress code, to quit oversexualizing women,” she said. “It’s a growing issue that women are seen more and more as sexual objects and less and less as people.”

News of the girls’ suspensions drew attention on social media Friday, with students at East High and beyond sharing their thoughts about dress codes.

“Missing 2 days of school for voicing your opinion is okay. But wearing shorts to school distracts from education. #EastLogic,” one student tweeted.

Banzet says she doesn’t regret posting the fliers Friday, even though her suspension means she won’t be able to play in the last softball game of the season. In hindsight, she added, she wouldn’t change the bluntly worded flier that officials said was the prime reason for the suspension.

“If you just went to an administrator and told them you had an issue, you’d be shrugged off,” she said. “We used a more in-your-face tactic, and as you can see by Twitter blowing up, people are noticing it.

“It’s an issue that a lot of people are behind and working on.”

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or stobias@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @suzannetobias.

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