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Petaluma, other schools crack down on girls' leggings worn as pants

Published: Thursday, April 11, 2013 at 5:25 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, April 12, 2013 at 11:51 a.m.

Are leggings too revealing to wear to school?

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Luisa Ciaffa, right, wears knee-length leggings at Santa Rosa Middle School on Wednesday, April 10, 2013.

(Conner Jay/The Press Democrat)

The debate over the tight-

fitting pants, which have been the topic of controversy since the likes of Kim Kardashian first turned up in skintight spandex, has arrived in Sonoma County middle schools, and leggings are losing.

With less than two months left in the school year, administrators at several local schools are cracking down on the stretchy garments, telling girls to cover up the hip region or choose something different to wear.

"They are not pants," said Emily Dunnagan, principal at Petaluma's Kenilworth Junior High, where a storm of criticism and confusion erupted last week after the school warned girls their leggings could distract boys. The school instructed girls to wear leggings underneath other clothes that covered their hips.

Rincon Valley Middle School Principal Matt Marshall, chagrined even to have to broach the topic, instructed parents in February to make sure girls were wearing shorts or skirts over sheer or form-fitting leggings.

"You could see more than you wanted to see," Marshall said this week. "It was making some people uncomfortable, students and staff."

Though they differ slightly depending on the campus, school dress codes generally prohibit see-through clothing, sagging pants and other outfits that reveal undergarments or too much skin.

But some students seem stunned by the notion that leggings go beyond the line of decency.

"Aren't we in America?" asked Diana Figueroa, an eighth-grader at Santa Rosa Middle School, which is mulling new restrictions on leggings for next year. "We should decide whether we like it or not."

Sonoma County schools are not the first to wrestle with what Huffington Post style editor Jessica Misener once dubbed "leggings-pants-pocalypse." Schools in Minnesota, Vermont and Maryland already have waged high-profile battles.

Willowside Middle School has had a no-leggings rule in the dress code for several years, said Brett Page, the teacher in charge. While students still occasionally push the boundaries and are required to put on gym clothes or call home for a wardrobe change, "it's something that's easy for us because it's clearly stated in our dress code," Page said.

But the leggings issue crept up on some Sonoma County school staffers who had finally grown used to the ultra-tight, skinny jeans that many young people find fashionable.

Where jeans may fit like sausage casings, they at least have zippers, waistbands and, often, pockets, requiring construction and fabric weights that mask some anatomical detail.

Leggings are lighter weight -- some so much so they're practically transparent when stretched thin.

Girls say they like them because they're comfortable, come in lots of patterns, and are cooler in warm temperatures and less binding than jeans.

The trade-off is they're more revealing than anything else students might wear on the lower half.

One Santa Rosa Middle School student, Jacqueline Calderón, 14, said she already chooses not to wear leggings because "it shows too much."

"I think they're inappropriate," she said.

But most girls want to police their own dress. In particular, they object to the idea that what they wear should be dictated by the hormonal challenges of their male classmates, as some adults suggest when they tout outfits that won't distract the boys.

"Really, they're making it seem like guys can't control themselves," said Santa Rosa seventh-grader Sami Kline, 13.

"I know it's some primal desire, but still," added friend Galina Berger, also a seventh-grader.

Administrators said they have rules governing boys' clothing, too, and say they recognize the connection between fashion and self-expression.

But there is a need for some regulation, administrators said, particularly for younger adolescents just acquiring their adult bodies and eager to explore their own style and establish their independence through dress.

"If it was up to the kids, there would be no dress code, and it would be the Wild West," Marshall said.

High schools tend to be somewhat more permissive, he and others said, because the kids are simply at a different developmental stage.

But Santa Rosa Middle School Principal Kathy Coker said dress codes have to evolve with changing cultural trends. She expects to tweak next year's rules to require girls who wear leggings to make sure the top area is covered by other clothing.

She might learn something from the rollout last week of new dress rules at Kenilworth in Petaluma, where the 450 girls on campus were pulled together for a talk about appropriate school clothes.

Some parents and students were so outraged they took their case to KTVU news. Critics objected especially to the message that boys with raging hormones were too easily distracted by revealing clothing, while girls who dressed more modestly were deemed to have great self-respect.

They said the rules singled out girls, while boys try to get away with very tight jeans that expose their underwear.

Assistant Principal Kathy Olmsted later issued an apology for statements that "went further than they should have," though she reinforced the message that students need to "dress as if this were a business environment and they were coming to work."

Marshall, at Rincon Valley Middle School, said he and his staff decided it was time to act when some girls started wearing leggings that were partially sheer above the knees. Jeans with holes in the thigh already are prohibited, he said, but it makes no sense to try to evaluate each individual pair of leggings.

Dunnagan echoed his thoughts. Besides, she said, "everybody develops differently.

"What's cool and hip wears differently on different kids," Dunnagan said. "So it's a very fine line that we have to walk, but it's about keeping the kids safe in a school environment, (and) a school environment that's safe for learning to occur."

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.

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