Skirting the Issue: Parents Pull Children From St. Pius X Over Dress Code

St. Pius X School in Aurora.
St. Pius X School in Aurora. Hilal Bahcetepe
Abby and Patrick McInerney were looking forward to sending their four-year-old daughter to pre-kindergarten at St. Pius X Catholic School, which stands next to the St. Pius X Parish church in Aurora. Their son, who was set to begin second grade at St. Pius this fall, was eager to see the friends he'd made there last year, too.

But then the McInerneys received an email from principal Eileen Michalczyk regarding a school dress code that applies to girls between the ages of four and six:

“As a reminder to families with GIRLS in kindergarten and first grade, your daughter must wear a skirt or jumper in our school plaid each day," Michalczyk wrote on July 19. "Pants and shorts are not allowed for girls in kindergarten and first grade. Our world sends very confusing messages to our kids, telling them that they can choose their own gender. We work to help our kids embrace the gender God has given them at birth. One way to do this is to help them learn to dress for their gender. Let's face it, men and women dress differently, even if they are both wearing pants! By helping young girls be excited to be a girl and show that through how they dress, we are supporting God's work of creation of both male and female. Girls may wear shorts, leggings, or tights under their skirts or jumpers.”

Concerned about what she saw as the policy's "gender inequality and the blatant bigotry," Abby McInerney quickly fired off a response to the principal.

"I raise my children to understand that we are created in God’s image and if that means you question your gender, or sexual preference or your own faith, then that is the journey God has created for you," she emailed. "Jesus has preached that we should love those who are different, and you are preaching the exact opposite."

Michalczyk replied the next day, noting that the school felt the dress code clarified its Catholic values regarding gender conformity amid rampant "messages of a confused world" delivered to children. "This policy is in no way meant to be intolerant or un-loving towards anyone," she said. "As Catholics, we are absolutely called to love others, regardless of the choices they make. We strive to do that always here at St. Pius X. We teach and practice love and respect for every person, since we are all created in the image and likeness of God. I’m sorry that you felt that this policy in some way reflected an intolerance or hatred towards any other person. It is simply a dress-code policy, and not meant to be a larger issue. We don’t let the boys in the school wear skirts and jumpers, so this issue really isn’t any different. There are different dress codes for girls and boys and always have been. This is just a small change to that."

"We aren’t judging anyone, but rather wanting to implement policies and curriculum that can help lead people to God and his plan for their lives," the principal added. "We don’t support child abusers for their choices, and we don’t support murderers for their choices. There are some things that we know are morally wrong....God doesn’t make mistakes, and when he assigns you your gender before birth, he isn’t wrong in that. It isn’t a choice, it is a biological fact."

The response infuriated McInerney. "I am baffled that St. Pius would take such a huge step backwards in preaching intolerance," she says. "I was raised in a strong Catholic family of four woman. My sisters and I were taught that our faith and love in God meant loving others for who they are, not how they dress."

"My husband and I were raised in the Catholic Church and attended Catholic schools, as well, and the uniform policies in the ’90s and 2000s were less restrictive than this outdated and sexist policy," she adds. “For me, all I could think of was, if a kid wants to wear pants, it shouldn’t be something they’re shamed for. This only provides a division between genders.”

Not satisfied by the principal's explanation, McInerney emailed her concerns to the Archdiocese of Denver on July 21. "I have lost a lot of faith in the education my children will receive at St. Pius. School should be a safe place," she wrote, "and I fear that it will become a place of bullying and sexism."

She received no response. "I really can't imagine that I'm the only parent who is incredibly upset by this," she says. "This dress code is blatantly sexist and intolerant."

Ultimately, the McInerneys decided to send their children to another school come fall.

"My husband and I loved our Catholic school upbringing and we wanted to do the same for our children," Abby explains. "My Catholic upbringing had nothing to do with the clothes that we wore, but the idea that we are all made in God's image, and that God loves us no matter who we are. And it became very obvious that that was not going to be the message at St. Pius. My daughter loves to dress up in anything. She loves wearing Disney princess ball gowns, and then she loves getting down and dirty in the dirt in shorts and pants. ...

"We have no problem with uniforms," she concludes. "But now it’s like they’re sending out their political agenda instead of making it just about the uniform."

While the McInerneys did not get a response from the Archdiocese of Denver, a spokesman did respond to Westword's queries. According to Mark Haas, public relations director, principal Michalczyk and pastor Father Jorge Agüera chose to gradually enforce a new dress code at St. Pius X Catholic School by implementing it one grade level at a time each year; it started with kindergarten last year and is now moving up to first-grade girls.

"If a parent disagrees with a private school policy or a teaching of the Catholic Church, no one is forcing that upon them or their family. Families voluntarily choose to attend private Catholic schools. If it is not the right fit for them, they have complete freedom to go elsewhere," Haas says.  If parents ultimately do not desire an education for their child that aligns with the mission and values of the Catholic Church, we fully respect their right as the primary educators of their children to pursue other educational options for their family.

"Lots of private schools have dress code policies," he adds. "I am just unsure what is newsworthy about this."

Here's the full statement that the Archdiocese of Denver provided:
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Hilal is an alumni of Metropolitan State University of Denver with a degree in political science. She's written for Denver Life Magazine and 303 Magazine, and is the current cannabis intern for Westword.
Contact: Hilal Bahcetepe