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Making kids wear 'shame suits' doesn't help them learn

Host Melissa Harris-Perry sends her open letter to a Florida school superintendent concerning a student who was shamed for violating her school's dress code.

This week, the school year began in earnest throughout the country. From pre-K to college campuses, young people returned to classrooms with sharpened pencils, fresh notebooks, and of course, the determination to express themselves through style and attire.

It seems many school officials have decided to meet that individual expression with some, good old-fashioned repression.

Take the story of this five-year old boy in Seminole, Texas who was sent home on his first day of kindergarten over his long hair, which was pulled back into a ponytail. Little Malachi is a member of the Navajo Nation, which believes hair is sacred and should not be cut. The district would not let him to return to class until he provided documentation that he was truly Native American.

Or this story of a Rastafarian teenager in Louisiana, who was repeatedly sent home for wearing his hair in dreadlocks. The student even took the advice of a school board member and pinned up his hair, so it didn't fall beyond his shoulders. After 10 days of being sent home, the ACLU reports, they have reached an agreement with the school system - to let the student rejoin his classmates.

But nothing jolted me as much as the story of one teenage girl in Clay County, Florida--which is why my letter this week goes to the superintendent of that county's school district.

Dear Superintendent Charlie Van Zant, Jr.,

It's me, Melissa.

On Miranda Larkin's third day of school, she wore this outfit: a black skirt, about three to four inches above her knees, which is a violation of the dress code.

And for that, your policy resulted in the 15-year-old having to wear this outfit. Her punishment was a neon yellow t-shirt and red sweatpants with the words "dress code violation" written across both.

Your district's school, Oakleaf High, maintains it gives students three options in the event of a dress code violation--including in-school suspension and a parent or guardian bringing the student new clothes. But this so-called "shame suit" was the only option Miranda says was made available to her.

Miranda's mother says when her daughter saw herself in the "shame suit," Miranda burst into tears and broke out in hives, requiring medication. You see, Superintendent, Miranda just moved to your Florida school district from Seattle--and this was her first week at a brand new school!

Now, your district's spokesman, said "the purpose of the punishment is for students to miss as little class as possible and create a distraction-free learning environment." I'm sorry, what? As if the neon yellow shirt isn't distracting?! As if public shaming, especially among teenagers, isn't distracting? Especially for Miranda.

Let me help you understand what happens when you shame students. There are the physiological effects.

Social scientists have found shame is "an intrinsic instrument of isolation and withdrawal," and biochemically, it can damage cognitive function. Shame also damages feelings of belonging and the formation of school community, which as we know, is essential to students' motivation and engagement. In other words, by turning this young woman into a neon billboard of dress code violation, you may have made it physically more difficult for her to concentrate and complete her work.

To succeed at school, students must have a sense of social competence and academic achievement. You likely undermined that for her.

Superintendent Van Zant, have you ever been the new kid in school? Do you know how much you hope to fit in and to make friends? Did you think of how much harder you have made that journey for this student? And this is about more than Miranda. Every choice made by educators is a lesson to students. What lesson have you taught your students? I believe you have taught them how to label, how to taunt, and how to shame. That is why we no longer have kids don a dunce cap as punishment.

Superintendent Van Zant, maybe it's time school leaders like yourself, and apparently many others around the country, focus on the spirits and minds of the young people, and a little less focused on their outward appearance. Because what you are teaching them is that how you look is more important than what you know or who you are.