Body Conscious in the Right Way: Independent School Policies that Focus on Student Wellbeing

Published: National Association of Independent Schools
October 1, 2019

Many people think of August as a time of summer leisure activities, but for those of us who support independent schools, August and early September are among the busiest times of the year, even when students are not yet back on campus. Yes, it’s student handbook revision time! While drafting policies may not sound like everyone’s idea of summer fun, I do think it is one of the best ways to become acquainted with a school’s culture. Both the tone and of course the content of a student handbook are indicators about how a school promotes student health and wellbeing.  This article will review some approaches that stand out and highlight other areas where schools might want to consider focusing more attention.


By now, schools recognize the danger posed by concussions, and most handbooks we review include robust policies that address concussion prevention, management, and clearances for permitting return to play and study.  One area receiving less attention is the other stressors on developing bodies, with young student athletes expected to participate both in school and external club teams to enhance their chances of being recruited or admitted by a university. As a recent article in the Boston Globe put it, “Sports medicine specialists say they try to encourage enthusiasm for youth sports, which are beneficial for young bodies and minds. But they want to help kids avoid injuries and burnout, and to understand the reality: A small percentage of young athletes will be recruited to play at college, and a vanishingly small fraction make it to a professional level.”

Independent schools can play a part in helping to reduce “overuse injuries” by sticking to the traditional seasonal approach to athletics (for example, field hockey in the fall, squash in the winter, softball in the spring), as moving the body in a variety of ways can mitigate against harm done by repetitive motion. Athletic trainers and coaches need to understand which types of exercises are a good match for the age of the student and enforce rest days. Schools can also discourage absences from their own physical education programs (to permit participation in club teams or other specialized training), except for the (usually rare) instances where a young athlete is exceptionally talented.

No doubt students and parents will resist such restrictions, feeling pressure to do whatever it takes to succeed in youth sports. Independent schools can help families set realistic expectations and refocus the discussion (and policy) on what is in the best interest of a developing athlete’s overall wellbeing.

Dress Codes

Another development in handbooks: dress codes have become increasingly gender neutral. Whether motivated by an effort to be more inclusive, or a heightened awareness of gender fluidity on campus, or because a school is in one of the approximately 20 states that prohibit discrimination or bullying based on gender identity, independent schools are looking for ways to increase the comfort level of all students. Some schools still divide the code into boys and girls sections, but others simply state that all students should avoid clothes that are sexually revealing, need to be laundered, or that advertise illegal activity for minors (drinking and drug use, for example). Some still refer to skirt length and that tops with spaghetti straps should be avoided, but those guidelines are now often applicable to students regardless of how they identify on the gender spectrum.

Back to athletics, some recent examples illustrate how policies apparently aimed at modesty and appropriateness have the inadvertent result of body shaming athletes, particularly females. Such policies may also perpetuate the trope of women as temptresses and males as unable to control themselves around scantily clad young women. For example, earlier in September, an accomplished high school swimmer was disqualified from a competition because her one-piece, standard issue, racer back swimsuit had crept up on her during competition, exposing too much of her backside. The student’s victory in the race was reinstated, and the story has raised awareness about the “reality of how modern swimsuits fit the physique of high-level athletes when they’re performing,” according to a CNN article republished by the Mercury News.

As for sports bras, folks are talking anew about the propriety of wearing them without a shirt over them, thanks to the American women’s victory in the soccer World Cup in 2019, harkening back to the iconic photograph of Brandi Chastain’s victory celebration 20 years earlier. From the world stage to independent schools, last year, a high school senior from California expressed her frustration with her school’s justifications for discouraging girls on the cross country team from running in just a sports bra, even on hot days. In an article for the Lancer, a young woman rejected her coach’s reliance, again, on a modesty argument, and asserted that not permitting girls to train in sports bras only, “conveys to the girls on the team that their bodies are inherently more shameful than the bodies of the boys on the team. It is reinforcing the idea that girls should give up their rights to equal treatment to account for the immature response specific boys have to women’s bodies. Finally it is teaching the boys on the team that they do not need to learn to constrain themselves when they have unreciprocated attractions.”

Independent schools need to evaluate what is right for their culture when it comes to the dress code, both on and off the field; however, these examples will hopefully challenge athletic directors and deans of students to re-examine the assumptions that have historically been woven into the fabric of school policies addressing attire. Count the puns, I dare you!

Sexuality and Consent

If you think sports bras are a controversial topic, how to address adolescents and sexuality provokes even more discussion and, of course, understandably so, given the serious consequences—from physical harm to criminal charges—that may result from an encounter gone wrong or that should never have happened in the first place.

Student handbooks range from not addressing this topic at all, to detailing relevant state statutes that cover the age of consent; in states with “Romeo and Juliet” or “close in age” exceptions to statutory rape laws, some handbook policies also make clear when consent can never be granted.  Virtually all handbooks that include a section on intimacy and sexuality indicate that such conduct between students is not condoned on school campuses or at school-sponsored events; but policies also recognize that for many teenagers, it may be developmentally appropriate—or at least inevitable—for students to experiment with levels of intimacy. Some policies—particularly for boarding schools—suggest referrals to the student health center where students can obtain information about reproductive health. Another policy angle is to ban public displays of affection, as they may make other school community members feel uncomfortable.

Many independent schools were founded on religious traditions and an open discussion of sexuality runs counter to the school’s ethos. And publication of a policy in a school handbook may draw undue attention to the subject. Schools with access to counselors, psychologists, and a school nurse may feel more at ease in addressing student sexuality, especially with input from these trained professionals. The challenge in crafting such a policy is to recognize the realities of adolescence, while helping students set appropriate boundaries for themselves. A lot to ask of a student handbook, but a well-drafted policy can help enhance student health and wellbeing.

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Changes in the types of policies described here are as much a matter of checking in on statutory and regulatory changes, as they are on polling community stakeholders, including students, parents, faculty, staff, and the board, about what makes sense for an independent school community today. These conversations may take time, but the resulting policy updates—or a decision to maintain a particular tradition—will then be informed by thorough analysis. All an education attorney can ask of her clients.