(USA Today)- The eighth-graders' annual dinner dance here has become a lesson in civil liberties and gender studies after a middle school principal banned strapless dresses.
She considers them too distracting for boys.
But parents, not rebellious teens, are the ones fighting this dress-code ruling at Readington Middle School.
"I'm objecting to the fact that government can come in and change the rules without asking parents. That's an abuse of authority," said Charlotte Nijenhuis, who plans to petition the Readington Board of Education to suspend the rule. She called the rule arbitrary, sexist and a violation of her daughter's 14th Amendment rights to due process and equal protection.
Plus, strapless dresses were allowed in previous years, parents said.
This month Principal Sharon Moffat sent parents a letter that said, "Young gentlemen are encouraged to wear collared shirts and trousers; many boys wear ties or jackets. Young ladies should wear a skirt, dress with straps, or dressy pants outfit. Jeans or sneakers are not appropriate for this event."
Nijenhuis said she spoke to Moffat, who told her that any girl who shows up June 12 in a strapless dress would be turned away.
The dance is being conducted off campus and parents are footing the bill. Many parents already have purchased dresses for their daughters, they said.
"Ms. Moffat has stated that such dresses 'distract boys' and are 'inappropriate' for young girls. As a parent, she is free to dictate the attire of her children, but as a principal of a public school and representative of all of the residents of Readington, she ought to not unilaterally dictate what our children may or may not wear," Nijenhuis wrote in a letter to Superintendent Barbara Sargent, who backed the principal.
"Ms. Moffat's comment about 'distraction' to the boys is particularly offensive because it suggests that boys are not able to control — or ought not to be required to control — their behavior when in the presence of girls wearing strapless dresses," Nijenhuis said. "It is neither a woman's nor a girl's responsibility to control a man's or boy's behavior."
Sargent could not be reached for comment Monday.
Some other schools across the country have banned strapless dresses this year, including Capistrano Valley High School in Mission Viejo, Calif., which said dresses at its winter formal this past February had to have straps.
The rationale? "Quite often strapless dresses fall while students are dancing, becoming inappropriate," school officials said on their website. They suggested sewing on ribbon, clear plastic or spaghetti straps to comply with the dress code. And the Southern California school had several other restrictions as well.
Here in Readington Township, Melissa May, 37, said she disagreed with the tone of the principal's letter.
"I would not allow my daughter to wear something that I felt was inappropriate to a function like that," May said. "As parents, we should have the ability to say what our children wear."
The junior section of clothing stores also reflects an affinity for short shorts and strapless dresses, she said.
"I've seen full dresses that are more inappropriate than these (strapless) dresses," said Harry Nijenhuis, who defended his daughter's planned outfit for the dance. "It's not an inappropriate dress. It's a fancy dress."