Federal Appeals Court Invalidates School Dress Code

The federal Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last week that a North Carolina charter school violated the constitutional rights of female students by requiring them to wear skirts as part of its dress code.

The entire panel of the court heard the appeal, and in a 10-6 majority opinion, Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Barbara Milano Keenan wrote the rule “blatantly perpetuates harmful gender stereotypes.”

The court ruled that since the Charter Day School receives public funding, it is a “state actor” and is subject to the same restrictions against discrimination as ordinary public schools. The new ruling overturns an earlier decision by a three-judge panel of the court that found the school doesn’t meet all the legal requirements necessary for it to be considered a state actor.

Keenan wrote that the school put the requirement for skirts in place for the “express purpose of telegraphing to children that girls are ‘fragile,’ require protection by boys and warrant different treatment than male students, stereotypes with potentially devastating consequences for young girls.”

The opinion went on to say that the dress code is only “one component” of the school’s “imposition of traditional gender roles” on children. Keenan said that “we may never know the full scope or all the consequences of CDS’ blatant, unapologetic discrimination against its female students.”

The plaintiffs in the case sued the school by claiming that the dress code that differentiates between boys and girls violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and also amounts to illegal discrimination that deprives girls of equal educational benefits as required by Title IX.

Bonnie Peltier was one of the plaintiffs who has a daughter at the school. She said that she is happy the girls at the school will now be “able to learn, move, and play on equal terms as the boys in school.” She didn’t explain how skirts prevented “equal terms” but did say that girls should not have to “decide between wearing something that makes them uncomfortable or missing classroom instruction time.”

ACLU senior staff attorney Galen Sherwin said that the decision “should put charter schools across the country on notice that they must follow the same rules as traditional schools” regarding complete equality of the genders.

Court documents indicated that the founder of the school argued that the dress code was intended to promote respect for female students and a spirit of “chivalry.” It was intended to promote an environment where girls are “treated courteously and more gently than boys.”

Attorney Aaron Streett represents the school and said that it is now evaluating possible next steps in the case. He noted that the dissenting opinion in the case notes the majority ruling is at odds with existing Supreme Court precedent about the definition of “state actors.”