In a decision that strikes a progressive blow toward gender equality in public education, a federal judge ruled last week a North Carolina charter school’s requirement that female students wear skirts is unconstitutional.
U.S. District Judge Malcolm Howard in the Eastern District of North Carolina said Thursday that Charter Day School, a high-performing public charter in Leland, North Carolina, violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. Under the school’s dress code, female students were required to wear skirts, skorts, or jumpers — and they risked disciplinary actions up to expulsion for wearing pants or shorts. Male students are allowed to wear pants or shorts.
In 2016, parents of three female students — then ages 5, 10 and 14 — attending the school brought a lawsuit with representation from the North Carolina American Civil Liberties Union, arguing the dress code inhibited their daughters from learning on par with their male classmates.
Specifically, the lawsuit pointed out no student had been expelled for violating the policy since the school opened in 2000, administrators were unfairly treating girls by forcing them to wear clothing that restricted their ability to play freely at recess, sit without being overly concerned about flashing their undergarments, and being uncomfortably cold in winter weather.
“All I wanted was for my daughter and every other girl at school to have the option to wear pants so she could play outside, sit comfortably, and stay warm in the winter,” Bonnie Peltier, the mother of a former Charter Day School student who is a client in the case, said in a statement released by the ACLU. “We’re happy the court agrees, but it’s disappointing that it took a court order to force the school to accept the simple fact that, in 2019, girls should have the choice to wear pants.”
"It’s disappointing that it took a court order to force the school to accept the simple fact that, in 2019, girls should have the choice to wear pants.”https://t.co/zHDokodIag
— ACLU of North Carolina (@ACLU_NC) March 29, 2019
Charter schools receive funding from taxpayers, making them public schools, although their charters allow flexibility to do things differently from traditional public schools.
Charter Day School, for example, is one of four Wilmington, North Carolina-area charter schools governed by a nonprofit group that hires a for-profit firm to coordinate its business and academic operations.
Judge Howard ruled that, although North Carolina charter schools and their nonprofit board members are not the state’s employees in every respect, Charter Day School’s leaders operated under state law by imposing a disciplinary code that called for punishing children who didn’t wear the prescribed uniforms.
Members of the school’s nonprofit board, however, said its court filings that the dress code regulations were central to its educational mission. In addition to girls wearing skirts, the student uniform called for all students to wear white or navy blue tops tucked into khaki or blue bottoms. The board said these rules were well-established and every parent knew about them when enrolling their children.
Baker A. Mitchell, Jr., the school’s founder and primary author of the uniform policy, defended the dress code. In an email attached to the lawsuit, Mitchell argued the school sought to uphold “traditional values.” He also noted cited the 1999 Columbine school shootings as a motivation for the school “to preserve chivalry and respect among young women and men.”
But Howard dismissed those arguments, saying the school leaders couldn’t show a direct connection between girls wearing skirts and doing well in the school.
Galen Sherwin, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, praised the judge’s ruling, saying dress codes that apply exclusively to female students are “outdated and discriminatory.”
“This policy reflected antiquated gender stereotypes, intentionally sending the message that girls are not equal to boys,” Sherwin said in a statement. “Such discriminatory stereotypes risk following students throughout their lives, and should have no place in our public schools.”