This story was originally published on Stuff
Marli Atu hopes new uniform guidelines for schools will stop students feeling “ashamed” of their identity or even being kicked out of school altogether for expressing their culture.
The now 19-year-old changed schools rather than cover up his tatau, a Fijian and Samoan tattoo, given to him on his 16th birthday.
“It was definitely a hard thing for me to come to terms with ... less so having to show it off, but more so having to hide it and be ashamed of it.”
Atu was joined by his mother, Taieri MP Ingrid Leary, at Dunedin’s Bayfield High School on Wednesday when the New Zealand Human Rights Commission officially released its school uniform guidelines.
Those guidelines, according to the booklet, provide a ‘’non-binding guidance on school uniform policies from a Te Tiriti o Waitangi and human rights lens’’.
Atu recalled a woman contacting him saying she had been expelled from her school over her traditional nose piercing when she was 14.
“She was really supportive of me, and gave me a lot of advice in that time.”
He thanked those behind the new guidelines, saying he hoped it would stop other students from being expelled for expressing their culture.
“This is huge,” he said.
Leary said her son’s experience when he was at high school in Auckland, and several other high profile cases in her electorate – including one where an African-American student was told to stop wearing his hair in cornrows – prompted a push for the guidelines.
“It made me realise it is a bit of a postcode lottery in terms of whether students feel safe at school ... around their identity, uniform and grooming protocols.”
She contacted Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon, which led to a series of 2021 hui with fellow MP Adrian Rurawhe and various students and staff on school uniform and dress code policies.
“What came through very strongly was that a number of students didn’t feel safe around their ethnicity, religion or gender, due to the archaic policies in place,” Leary said.
While the guidelines did not force schools to do anything, they could help sort any issues so students “feel safe, and they can get on with their learning and not be distracted by feeling uncomfortable and unsafe at school”.
Foon said it was a “serious thing”.
Recently, some Muslim students at a New Zealand school wanted to pray, but were told they needed to go home to do so, he said.
“We need to change the culture and ask schools and their trustees to reflect their communities.”
The guidelines noted many schools had uniforms, and they could be a “great way to distinguish students and instil a sense of community and pride in their school”.
“School uniforms can also help reduce bullying from peers based on clothing and appearance. This makes it important that students are able to have their rights upheld, while fulfilling their responsibilities of wearing school uniform,” the guidelines state.
Inclusive uniform policies helped improve student’s mental health and wellbeing by “allowing them to feel that their whole self is recognised and respected”.
School uniform guidelines include:
- Allowing Māori students to wear items that are taonga to them, such as tā moko, pounamu or hei tiki.
- Taonga could include Māori hairstyles and length, so schools should not impose traditional western norms on Māori students, the guidelines state.
- The Human Rights Act prohibited discrimination on several grounds including sex (including gender), religious belief, colour, race and disability, which could include schools providing non-gendered uniform options.
- Schools should reflect and accommodate the diversity of their students in their uniform policies. This can be achieved by including items of cultural or religious significance
- Schools should exclude certain symbols or regalia that represent hate, such as swastika or confederate flag-type memorabilia
Foon said school boards may, after consulting with their school community, make their own uniform rules, but they had to ensure school was a physically and emotionally safe place for all students and staff.
Schools also needed to acknowledge Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and the relevant student rights in the Education and Training Act, the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, and the Human Rights Act.
Bayfield High School principal Mark Jones welcomed the guidelines, saying “it is all about removing barriers for learning”.
“It makes sense if you are trying to open up schools to focus on learning.”
He had been involved in New Zealand’s education sector for two decades, and said students increasingly wanted to “express who they are”.
Many schools, including Bayfield, allowed for that in the flexibility in their uniforms.
“Where we end in terms of our creativity, students will always try and push it that bit further.”
Other schools that participated in follow-up hui on the new guidelines included Beckenham Te Kura o Pūroto, Dunedin North Intermediate, Onslow College, Porirua College, Queen Margaret College, St Peter’s College (Gore), Tawa College, Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Ngā Mokopuna, Wakatipu High School, Wellington College, and Wellington High School.