A federal district court in North Carolina struck down a charter school’s dress code that required female students to wear skirts in Peltier v. Charter Day School. The court found that the skirt requirement policy violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution because it “causes the girls to suffer a burden the boys do not, simply because they are female.”
Plaintiffs, current and former students of Charter Day School (“School”), a co-educational, K-8 public charter school in Brunswick County, North Carolina, brought an action challenging the School’s uniform policy that required female students to wear “skirts, skorts, or jumpers” and male students to wear shorts or pants. The plaintiffs asserted, in relevant part, that that skirt requirement violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because it “forces them to wear clothing that is less warm and comfortable than the pants their male classmates are permitted to wear and, more importantly, restricts [their] physical activity, distracts from their learning, and limits their educational opportunities.” In contrast, the School argued that the dress code policy “instill[s] discipline and keep[s] order” and “helps promote a sense of pride and team spirit.”
After first finding that the School acted under color of state law when it incorporated the uniform policy into the School’s disciplinary code—thus allowing students to be disciplined for dress code violations—the Court considered whether the skirt requirement of the uniform policy violated the Equal Protection Clause, which “protects individuals against intentional, arbitrary discrimination by government officials.” The Court rejected the School’s contentions that the skirt requirement was based on its traditional values approach and was in place to instill discipline and keep order, instead finding that the skirt requirement was not consistent with community norms in which women and girls routinely wear pants. Essentially, the Court found that the skirts requirement rendered female students “unable to play as freely during recess, require[d] them to sit in an uncomfortable manner in the classroom, cause[d] them to be overly focused on how they are sitting, distract[ed] them from the learning, and subject[ed] them to cold temperatures on their legs and/or uncomfortable layers of leggings under their knee-length skirts in order to stay warm.” Because the skirts requirement imposed a burden on girls that it did not on boys, it violated the Equal Protection Clause.
As community norms evolve, so too must a school district’s policies and procedures. School districts should evaluate their current policies to ensure that they are gender neutral and do not impose unnecessary, disparate burdens on one group. This is especially important where students may be disciplined for violations of such policies. Potential discriminatory dress policies include, but are not limited to, not only skirt, skort, and dress requirements for female students, but also policies that prohibit crop tops, spaghetti straps, or open shoulders for female students only, or that restrict male students from wearing earrings or other jewelry but not female students.
Please contact any attorney in our Students/Special Education practice group with questions on student dress codes.