ARLINGTON, Va. (7News) — Mary Frances Dempsey say she was just 12-years-old, a sixth grader at Arlington's Williamsburg Middle School, when she set out on a mission to change the dress code for students.
"I was in the sixth grade, and I was wearing an off-the-shoulder shirt, and I got dress-coded by one of my teachers," Dempsey recalled. "She told me she was going to let me off with a warning because it was the second day of school, but I should not dress like that anymore because it was inappropriate."
Dempsey, who is now 15-years-old, still remembers the conversation she had with her mom when she got home from school.
"I told my mom, I'm going to do something about that dress code, because I don't think that's right," she said. "I don't think shoulders should be viewed as inappropriate."
Soon after, Dempsey launched a campaign she called 'Free The Shoulders' and began pushing the school district to update its dress code. She felt the dress code unfairly targeted female students.
"It was only girls that the dress code was enforced against, from my perspective," she said. "I did not know a single guy who got dress-coded."
She also started a petition and wrote a letter to the school board.
"I wrote an email to the school board and I said I think we need to change the dress code. I made my case, and I got an email back, and that's when we really started talking," Dempsey said.
7News spoke to Arlington Public Schools' Director of Administrative Services about what happened next.
"Mary Frances reached out to our school board initially and I believe that was then forwarded to our superintendent, who brought it to my attention for follow-up, around the summer of 2020," said Dr. Jeannette Allen, who oversees the student code of conduct for APS.
Allen said Dempsey's concern is one that she'd heard before, and agreed that a change was needed.
"This was obviously an issue she was passionate about, and it's not the first time I had heard it, especially from female students, that they were getting disproportionately dress coded for wearing clothing they felt was comfortable and safe for them," Allen told 7News.
Allen says part of the problem is that there was no universal, district-wide dress code.
"One of the things I was concerned about is the subjective nature," she explained. "In fact, because we didn't have a district-wide dress code, that led to each school having their own, and possibly having vague or subjective language."
Dempsey says she shared that concern.
"It was very subjective. And the problem with a rule that's subjective, is that, when something is subjective it's harder to enforce because that bias can get in the way," Dempsey said. "Because if it's subjective, what does inappropriate really mean? Define inappropriate. Everyone has a different definition of inappropriate."
So over the last two years, Dr. Allen worked with Mary Frances and other students and staff to draft proposed 'Dress Code Standards' for APS.
The draft language includes a new, specific definition of 'inappropriate':
APS defines “inappropriate” as clothing that does not cover the buttocks or genitals, underwear worn without any clothes covering (visible waistbands or straps on undergarments worn under other clothing are acceptable) and clothing with language or images that are vulgar, discriminatory, derogatory, or obscene. In addition, clothing that promotes the use of weapons, illegal acts or violence, drugs, alcohol/drug paraphernalia or gang involvement may not be worn to school.
The updated dress code including that language is expected to be part of the APS student handbook starting this fall.
It would mean that shirts, spaghetti straps, and tank tops that show female students' shoulders would be allowed moving forward.
"As long as it's an opaque fabric and is covering your private areas, that is considered acceptable," Allen said.
Dempsey considers it a win, not just for her but for all female students.
"I think girls should not be discriminated against," Dempsey said. "I think it shows that APS is willing to listen to what kids have to say, which is so important in a school district."
On Tuesday afternoon, Dempsey stood outside Williamsburg Middle School and handed out fliers to students as they left campus. Her goal is to try to spread the word about the changes that are soon expected to the school district dress code.
"Honestly I'm so excited," she said. "That means to me that my voice got through. That means I did something."
Dr. Allen said there will also be efforts to educate and train staff about the school district's 'Dress Code Standards'.
"It's going to take time to change minds," she said. "I think it's important dress codes evolve because things change with time. Mindsets change. And without evolution there's no growth. In the past, I think it was seen as maybe a woman's body was distracting to other students in schools or in buildings or in the workforce, and those attitudes have changed."
7News checked with other school districts throughout the DMV area about the latest dress code requirements for students in Northern Virginia, Maryland, and D.C.
You can find the current dress codes by district, linked below:
Alexandria City Public Schools
Fairfax County Public Schools (Page 15)
Montgomery County Public Schools (Page 16)
Prince William County Public Schools (scroll down to 'Student Dress and Grooming')
Prince George's County Public Schools