Dress Codes After Columbine

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In her callout for reader submissions, Olga shared her own dress code story:

I started high school, in McKinney, Texas, right after Columbine. One of the Columbine shooters was wearing black during the attack. Therefore, in my public high school, we were not allowed to wear all black. That meant no black blouses with black skirts, no little black dresses, no black dress shirts with black slacks. There had to be at least one colorful element. This was, fortunately, during a preppier era, but suffice it to say my current look would not comply.

A few readers also recalled bans on trench coats, including this one: “I was actually suspended the day after Columbine because my trench coat was ‘gang-related clothing.’” In the aftermath of the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, much of the media pointed fingers on the “trench coat mafia.” Here’s a New York Times report from the day after the massacre:

Rendered virtually invisible among the athletes and popular classmates who surrounded them, a small group of students at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., found their way out of anonymity by banding together and dressing in Gothic-style clothing highlighted by long, black coats.

They called themselves the trench coat mafia.

The group was easy to notice among the 1,870 students at the school, because every day, no matter the weather, they wore their coats. [...] But investigators now believe that among the dozen or so students in the group were the people responsible for yesterday’s mass shooting at the high school, which left an estimated 25 people dead and at least 20 others wounded.

But the narrative that the assailants were part of a group of embittered goths turned out to be false. Here’s Dave Cullen, reporting for Salon in 1999:

They were never part of the Trench Coat Mafia. They didn’t target jocks, minorities or Christians. They had a hit list, but nobody on it was hit. They expected their bombs and explosives would wipe out most of the school. As investigators get closer to producing an official report about the Columbine High School massacre, it is already clear that much of what was reported last spring about the motives and methods of killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold was untrue.

Cullen went on to spend a decade investigating the shooting, culminating in Columbine (a book I read in college and loved). The month it was published, CNN reported that the trench coat mafia narrative “has been widely refuted, but for goth students around the country, the damage was done”:

Jennifer Muzquiz was “goth” in high school. She had, and still has, multicolored hair, a “face full of piercings,” and an all-black wardrobe, even though she no longer identifies with the goth subculture. And while her style had always earned her her fair share of strange glances, she says everything changed for the worse after the Columbine school shootings on April 20, 1999. [...]

“Parents, often successfully, lobbied to get trench coats and all-black attire banned in their local schools. School administrators started considering these groups to be gangs and harassment of students was rampant, with unwarranted backpack searches, detainment in the hallways by security guards, and being called into the administrative offices for questioning.”

Some school administrators continue to use the shooting to justify dress code rules. Earlier this year, a local news station reported that the founder of a charter school in North Carolina cited Columbine amid claims the school’s dress code discriminates against girls (who are not permitted to wear pants):

In an email cited in the lawsuit, Baker A. Mitchell, Jr., the school’s founder and primary author of the uniform policy, says that the requirement that girls wear skirts was based, among other things, on “chivalry” and “traditional values.” Mitchell’s email cites the 1999 Columbine school shootings as motivating the school “to preserve chivalry and respect among young women and men.”

“As you may recall, the tumult of the 1990’s was capped off by the Columbine shootings April 20, 1999,” that email reportedly reads, “in which two students killed thirteen classmates and injured twenty-four others — fourteen of whom were female.”

Did your own high school change its dress code in response to Columbine?  Let us know.