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Column: Parents say their daughters were targeted for wearing tank tops and given bright orange T-shirts to cover their shoulders

Students at Glenbard East High School in Lombard, Ill., returned home from the first day of school with some news that didn't sit well with parents.

Female students wearing tank tops were publicly called out for violating the student handbook's dress code and handed bright orange T-shirts to change into, according to parents, kicking off a volatile first week of school that saw TV news crews parked outside the school and administrators placed at the center of a social media firestorm.

"I can tell you outright the students were being shamed," Deanna Breen, said whose daughter is a sophomore at Glenbard East.

Breen's daughter was not among the students asked to change clothes, but she came home "shocked," Breen said, that her classmates were being made to swap their own clothing for bright orange school-issued attire.

"It's a dunce shirt, really," Breen said. "They chose bright orange to make them stand out. They could've chosen white shirts, but they want to humiliate and punish them."

Glenbard East officials didn't return phone calls for comment. Peg Mannion, community relations coordinator for Glenbard District 87, emailed me a statement from Glenbard East principal Shahe Bagdasarian.

"We continue to work tirelessly to educate all students while maintaining a safe and productive learning environment," Bagdasarian wrote. "If families have questions or concerns, please reach out to us to ask questions, verify facts and discuss your concerns. We value communication and collaboration with all our students and families."

I asked Mannion, via email, whether students were given orange T-shirts to wear if their clothing from home was deemed inappropriate.

"Students in violation of our dress code were offered the choice of spirit wear or a shirt that said dean rental," Mannion wrote in an email reply.

Posts related to the dress code flap on Lombard community Facebook pages were up to 700-plus comments by the following afternoon.

Parents expressed less frustration with the policy than with the haphazard way it's being enforced – attire that was allowed last school year is being cracked down on this year, and boys in sleeveless basketball jerseys weren't targeted, they say, but girls in tank tops were.

"The school is trying to tell girls their shoulders are a distraction," Breen said. "It's always about the shoulders."

Breen said she spoke with several parents who wondered whether the school-issued cheer uniforms and dance team uniforms, both of which are sleeveless, will now be considered in violation of dress code.

"Are they going to enforce that on Fridays?" Breen asked, referring to days that cheerleaders wear their uniforms to school. "How about the games? What is that saying to girls: You can't wear that to school, but you can wear it at a game or a performance where people pay to come watch you?"

Breen posted an open letter to Glenbard East leaders, written by another Glenbard East parent, on her Facebook page.

"First of all it is not up to women and girls to dress 'appropriately' so as not to arouse the men and boys they share space with," the letter reads. "If there is any lesson here, it is that everyone is responsible for his or her own thoughts and actions – that's it. 'I couldn't pay attention in class because the girl in front of me wore a tank top' is just a step from 'I couldn't help raping her because she wore a short skirt.'

"Second of all," the note continued, "it is extremely inappropriate to punish children on the first day of school by being publicly called out and forced to wear a nasty T-shirt. If this is a new initiative for the year (one with which I disagree but still) doesn't it make more sense to call parents' and students' attention to it before the first day of school?

"Third of all – are you kidding me? Is this the hill you want to die on? You want our wonderful school to be known for targeting and shaming 14-year-old girls who expose their shoulders?"

An email from Bagdasarian went out to Glenbard East families encouraging parents to remind students of the dress code policy, which was also in place last school year. The email references an upcoming assembly.

"I will have an opportunity to welcome all of our students at an assembly and outline expectations, including those related to attendance, digital citizenship and dress code, as we do every year," the email read.

"Then why did you have to shame the kids yesterday?" Breen said. "Why couldn't you wait until the day of the assembly and explain to them the policy and how you'll be enforcing it now? Last year my daughter could wear this shirt and this year she can't?"

Glenbard Township High School District 87 is the third largest high school district in Illinois. Glenbard East is one of four high schools that is in the district and includes students from suburban Addison, Bloomingdale, Glendale Heights and Lombard.

Page 26 of the Glenbard East student handbook spells out the dress code. "If, in the judgment of school officials, modes of dress or appearance are distracting or disruptive to the progress of the educational program, the student and parent will be notified and the student will be required to change immediately," the handbooks reads.

"Clothing considered to be revealing and does not adequately cover the front, back, sides, shoulders or midriff is prohibited on males and females," it reads.

"This has nothing to do with the policy and everything to do with how they've enforced it," Breen said. "The rules didn't change overnight, but kids get all dressed up for the first day of school and midway through the day they're attacked for wearing a shirt that shows their shoulder? A shirt that was fine last year?

"It was handled terribly," she said. "And now, this is the first-day impression. Girls are made to feel shameful and objectified. And for what? Because they wore a tank top on a hot day?"

I'm with the parents on this one. And I have to say: It's hard to credibly argue that you don't want students' clothing to be a distraction if you're handing them bright orange T-shirts to wear.

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(Contact Heidi Stevens at hstevens@tribune.com, or on Twitter: @heidistevens13.)

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