Principal Hotline: Saggy Pants and the Dress Code

Advice: Is the dress code battle worth fighting? Also: When your staff is more experienced than you are.

illustration of saggy pants

Dear Principal Hotline,

I have to know what your take is on dealing with saggy pants and older students. The other day I stopped a kid whose pants were almost to his knees. I pulled him aside, explained the rule and gave him a zip tie to keep them up. He was compliant, but the moment I walked away he opened the zip tie and tossed it in the trash. It’s driving me crazy. Should I be picking a bigger problem than dress code to focus on?

Suspended in Disbelief


Keep the focus on the student, not the saggy pants

First of all, I’d like to see how they remove zip ties so efficiently–this is one of my life’s great hardships.

Maybe we need to look at saggy pants a bit differently. No one wants to see students’ underwear, but this universal problem is small in the great scheme of things. Twenty-five percent of your population are about to enter the world, try to find jobs, and at that point, they’ll learn many employers prefer prospective employees whose pants are on their bodies. Maybe it’s worth considering ways to emulate that dynamic within your school day.

I’m not saying students should be barred from classes for how they dress. Those tactics rarely work, and teach students they have to choose between who they are and their educations. But perhaps extra incentives, available to all students, would help alleviate the problem by creating an intrinsic desire for these students to dress in a way that may help them succeed after they graduate. Perhaps setting up interview days with local employers for students with working papers, incorporating your dress code into whatever existing positive behavioral supports your building already has in place, or maybe have a business-casual lounge for upperclassmen. 


There’s the added complication that students’ families may lack the resources to replace clothing that is outside your dress code. I think the wisest approach to this issue (and dress code issues in general) is to bring a non-compliant student into your office for a one-on-one conversation in private. Start the conversation by expressing your understanding. shouting at a student or handing them a zip tie in the hallway may cause the student to feel attacked, especially since how we dress is a significant part of who we are. By speaking one-on-one, you can establish a partnership with the student and may be able to reach a compromise with which the student feels comfortable because it will still allow him to express himself.

There are creative solutions to this problem. I promise.


Dear Principal Hotline,

I’m graduating with my master’s in May and have only had experience in elementary school. I was recently been hired as an assistant principal by a small rural high school. I’m a little nervous about how the students will perceive me since I’m pretty young. But I’m more concerned with how to support the former assistant principal, who is moving into the principal role. Believe it or not, she is even younger than I am. How can I be sure to start our relationship off on a good note and help lead the school effectively, despite how young we both are?


Babe in the Woods


Dear Babe in the Woods,

I’m sure you’re already hyperaware of the inherent differences between high school and elementary school students. Being aware that high school students aren’t tiny humans is probably the first step toward a smooth transition. They’re developmentally working to assert their own identities—they want autonomy and respect.

Reframe your thinking in terms of your own age. You may not be able to pull off the stern, aloof, angry parent thing, but you will be able to play a really convincing good cop.

“Look, I know this rule seems stupid, but I need you to understand that even if I agree it would be really fun, it’s my job to make sure you don’t host a whipped cream slip and slide in the English wing for your senior prank. I like my job, so I would really appreciate if you worked with me here.” From someone in their forties, this would almost never work. From a person in their twenties who wallpapered their dorm suite with tin foil last year, it’s believable.

The same is true of your colleague. Obviously, it’s important both of you maintain a professional relationship with your students, and you’re going to have to be the stern disciplinarian in very serious situations. But as a team of young administrators, you’re going to have more in common with your students than your older peers do. After a few years, this will become a complete nonissue. The freshmen may not even realize how young you are now. For a 14-year-old, 25 looks ancient, and people in their 30s may as well be corpses.

Finally, don’t be afraid to ask your principal how you can best support her. She wouldn’t be receiving this promotion if she hadn’t thrived in the role you’re about to fill. ASK HER FOR ADVICE . Your older peers and your superiors have entire shoe closets full of wisdom.

You can do this.

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