LELAND – Yesterday a federal court ruled that a K-8 public charter school’s uniform policy violates the Constitution by requiring female students to wear skirts to school and prohibiting them from wearing pants or shorts. The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of North Carolina, and the law firm of Ellis & Winters LLP filed the challenge on behalf of three Brunswick County students.
U.S. District Judge Malcolm Howard issued a ruling on Thursday that strikes down the Leland school’s current dress code, which requires female students to wear skirts and punishes them if they wear pants or shorts, finding the policy violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. In the lawsuit, three students – ages 5, 10, and 14 – assert that wearing skirts restricts their movement and makes them uncomfortable in many types of weather and other school situations such as playing at recess or sitting on the floor.
“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," said Bonnie Peltier, the mother of a former Charter Day School student who is a client in the case. "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."
“Yesterday's ruling vindicates our young clients, who argued that the dress code policy was both outdated and discriminatory,” said Galen Sherwin, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project. “This policy reflected antiquated gender stereotypes, intentionally sending the message that girls are not equal to boys. Such discriminatory stereotypes risk following students throughout their lives, and should have no place in our public schools.”
Charter Day’s founder has stated that the skirts requirement promotes “chivalry,” “traditional values,” and “mutual respect.” In correspondence with the ACLU’s client, Baker Mitchell went so far as to suggest that the dress code could help prevent school shootings. The school argued that the policy fosters “mutual respect between girls and boys.” The court rejected this argument, finding that there was no evidence that the policy furthered those goals or that the policy was consistent with community norms, observing that “Women (and girls) have, for at least several decades, routinely worn both pants and skirts in various settings, including professional settings and school settings. Females have been allowed to wear trousers or pants in all but the most formal or conservative settings since the 1970s.” The court also found that "...the skirts requirement causes the girls to suffer a burden the boys do not, simply because they are female.”