LELAND, N.C. – The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of North Carolina, and the law firm of Ellis and Winters LLP filed a federal court challenge yesterday on behalf of three Brunswick County students against a section of a K-8 public charter school’s dress code that requires female students to wear skirts to school and prohibits them from wearing pants or shorts.
In the lawsuit against Charter Day School in Leland, North Carolina, three students – ages 5, 10, and 14 – say that wearing skirts restricts their movement, inhibits them in school situations such as playing at recess or sitting on the floor, and causes them to feel uncomfortably cold in the winter.
“There are a lot of situations – whether it’s playing outside, sitting on the floor, or trying to stay warm in the cold – where wearing a skirt makes my daughter uncomfortable and distracts her from learning,” said Bonnie Peltier, the mother of a 5-year-old Charter Day School student who is a client in the case. “I’m not against a dress code, but it’s 2016. Girls should be allowed to wear pants as part of the dress code. As a parent, nothing is more important to me than my children, and I don’t want an outdated policy to get in the way of their education.”
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina on behalf of Peltier’s daughter and two other female students, argues that the requirement for girls to wear skirts is based on stereotypes that constitute unlawful sex discrimination. It names Charter Day School, Inc., members of the school’s board of trustees, and the Roger Bacon Academy, Inc., as defendants. The case is being brought under Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in schools that accept federal funds, and the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause, as well as a similar provision in the North Carolina Constitution. It asks the court to block Charter Day School from enforcing its ban on girls wearing pants or shorts.
“Although many girls may not mind wearing skirts, no one should be forced to do so based on outdated sex stereotypes,” said Galen Sherwin, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project. “Requiring all girls to wear skirts reinforces the false notion that girls are less physically active, and should behave in a more typically feminine manner, than boys. Our clients correctly believe that they are equal to boys and should be treated equally by their school—and luckily, the law backs them up.”
Charter Day School’s uniform policy requires girls to wear skirts, skorts, or jumpers that must be “knee-length or longer.” Violating the uniform policy can result in discipline or even expulsion, according to the school’s handbook.
In an email cited in the lawsuit, Baker A. Mitchell, Jr., the school’s founder and primary author of the uniform policy, says that the requirement that girls wear skirts was based, among other things, on “chivalry” and “traditional values.” Mitchell’s email cites the 1999 Columbine school shootings as motivating the school “to preserve chivalry and respect among young women and men.”
Charter Day School is a public school according to state law and the North Carolina Board of Education. It is prohibited from discriminating against students on the basis of gender, and, because it also receives federal financial assistance, is subject to Title IX’s prohibition of sex discrimination.