The Education Ministry ordered an investigation Wednesday after a second-grade girl had to wear a T-shirt and no pants in class after her teacher forced her to remove her dress, claiming it did not comply with the school's dress code.
The teacher said the dress did not comply with the school’s dress code, and the girl’s parents complained to the police. The ministry said the teacher exercised poor judgment Tuesday, the day of the incident in Tel Aviv-suburb Petah Tikva.
She had asked the girl’s mother to bring in another outfit but the woman said she could not get to the school and agreed for the school to provide the T-shirt. The girl changed clothes in the bathroom.
Viktoria Roitman, the family’s lawyer, said the teacher cited “immodesty,” but the mother thought the shirt would be worn atop the dress, not instead of it.
“The girl was forced to spend an entire school day in her underwear, and of course everyone laughed at her,” Roitman said. “Now she refuses to go to school.”
The ministry said the teacher had assumed that the girl was wearing shorts concealed by the shirt. It said the dress code was up to the principal; in any case, it expressed “great regret over the incident” and has spoken with the principal.
The controversy is the first challenge for the new education minister, Yoav Gallant.
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The incident follows the uproar this week when girls were sent home from a school in central Israel when their shorts were deemed too short. In several other schools, students came to school wearing shorts in protest.
Controversy over girls’ attire in schools is nothing new in Israel. Temperatures can top 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) starting in the late spring, but boys aren’t taken to task for wearing shorts above the knee.
In Israel, the debate becomes more heated because of efforts, largely by the ultra-Orthodox community, to exclude women; for example, via segregation at public events.
Parents worry that if secular girls capitulate on the length of shorts, soon they will be required to cover even more of their bodies like their counterparts at Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox schools.
A ministry guide sheet for parents says “school administrators may ban students from coming to school with piercings, thongs sandals or crop tops,” while Orthodox schools “require an appropriate appearance matching accepted demands for modesty among religious people.”
The ministry leaves it up to school principals to set dress codes. In some schools the regulations are drawn up with the student council and parents’ committee.
“You can’t deal with the issue of how to dress only for a hot day,” Rani Hazon-Weiss, the principal of Dror High School in Jerusalem, told Haaretz last year. She recommends “a year-long, in-depth process in which body and self-awareness are addressed; otherwise the issue will just come up again and again.”
The ministry says it instructs principals to apply dress codes equally. But even if the codes are the same for both sexes, enforcement tends to target the girls. Last summer Limor, a mother of 9-year-old twin girls from Haifa, said her daughters had undergone a “pants inspection” at school.
According to Limor, one of her daughters told her the assistant principal would come to class and measure the lengths of the girls’ pants. The principal reportedly said in response that the boys’ pants weren’t measured “because they don’t wear short shorts like the girls do …. We’re looking for the really short shorts that are only made for girls.”
The ministry says that when a student doesn’t wear the school uniform, the school might hold a meeting with the child or parents. Repeat infractions might mar the student’s “appearance” grade on his or her report card, or the student might be denied entry to class and have to make up the missed work.
Back in 2010, the policy for elementary and middle schools was simply to come to school in “appropriate attire.” The education minister at the time, Gideon Sa’ar, later preferred a uniform, though the ministry described a uniform as a “school shirt” – a T-shirt with the school’s logo on it.
“I think students, certainly in elementary school, shouldn’t be spending time in front of a mirror every morning trying to decide what to wear,” Sa’ar told the Knesset Education, Culture and Sports Committee at the time.
According to a directive by the ministry’s director general, “a uniform helps improve the climate at schools and reduces the role played by economic gaps.”
In 2010, Sa’ar told the Knesset that “if it depended on me I would take it further .... If children wear a jacket and tie, that’s good.” He conceded, however, that this “might not jibe with the climate.”
In addition to demanding that students wear the official T-shirt, schools may decide on metrics such as haircuts, makeup, jewelry and shoe type.
In 2015 clarifications were added that a student may not be denied entry to school for failing to wear the uniform. In recent years, the Education Ministry has stuck to its advice that the issue is up to the principals.
Last summer, after protests against the unequal enforcement of dress codes, then-Education Minister Rafi Peretz said “the next update to the director general’s rules will make clear that school instructions apply to all students regardless of gender or any other criteria.” A year has passed but the rules have not been changed.