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Last Friday, 14-year-old Hunter Grace Niswender was excited to attend her very first high school dance, a homecoming celebration at Opelika High School in Opelika, Alabama. She put on her new white dress and posed so her mom could snap a photo.
But when she arrived at the dance, a vice principal at the door told Hunter Grace she couldn’t come in.
“She’s like, ‘Oh honey, you look beautiful, you’re gorgeous, but I can’t let you in because your dress doesn’t touch your knees,’” Hunter Grace’s mom, Kathy Niswender, told TODAY.
Hunter Grace was confused and indignant, her mom says, because she had worn a dress of the same length to school earlier that week without any issue.
“She was wronged; she was embarrassed,” her mom said. “Her first dance experience was ruined.”
Niswender added that in her eyes, a knee-length requirement is unrealistic by today’s clothing standards.
“Fashion changes,” she said. “Fourteen- to 18-year-old girls don’t wear dresses down to their knees.”
Hunter Grace was one of dozens of girls turned away from the dance that night for skirts or dresses deemed inappropriate by school officials.
Another freshman, 14-year-old Sydney King, was turned away for wearing this dress:
Sydney’s mom, Cody Sellers King, says she doesn’t understand why so many girls were refused entry.
“I saw a couple of girls whose shirts were probably too short, but most of them were just perfectly fine,” she told TODAY. “I thought, ‘This is wrong.’”
She added that this was an unnecessary embarrassment for teen girls, many of whom may already feel self-conscious about their appearance, and unsure of how to dress their changing figures.
“To me, it felt like body-shaming,” she said.
Some family members sounded off about the incident on Facebook:
Part of the confusion arose from a discrepancy between the high school’s dress code and the Opelika school district’s dress guidelines.
The homecoming guidelines that were passed out to students before this year’s dance state that dress lengths had to be “to the knee.”
However, the Opelika City Schools district-wide dress code states that “skirts, shorts and dresses must be mid-thigh or longer.”
Following the uproar, district superintendent Mark Neighbors announced that the high school’s dress code would be updated to align with district guidelines.
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“We apologize for the confusion and disappointment and will refund the cost of the dance ticket to those individuals who were turned away,” Neighbors said in a statement provided by a district spokesperson to TODAY. “We will correct the discrepancy in the code of conduct and student handbook to reflect the board policy. Once again, we apologize to our students and to our parents.”
On Sept. 23, Opelika High School will host a second homecoming dance — free-of-charge — for all students as a way to make up for the earlier event.
“Proper dress length for this event is mid-thigh,” the principal of OHS, Farrell Seymore, clarified in a letter to parents on Wednesday.
Sydney King is still deciding whether to go to the makeup dance, but Hunter Grace Niswender says she definitely won’t go.
Hunter Grace’s mom says she's glad the school dress code has been clarified. But at the same time, she wishes the dress code wasn’t such a big deal to begin with.
“We spend way too much time policing what our children are wearing,” she said. “They’re there for an education. They’re there to learn.”