Education

Court strikes down N.C. charter school’s skirt requirement for female students

It sounds like a legal case from an earlier century, but a federal court ruled on Thursday that the uniform policy of a K-8 charter school in Leland violates the U.S. Constitution by forcing female students to wear skirts.

Charter Day School’s uniform policy requiring skirts, knee-length or longer, was challenged in U.S. District Court by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of North Carolina and the law firm of Ellis & Winters LLP on behalf of three Brunswick County students ages 5, 10 and 14.

“They [Charter Day School] are permitted to have a dress code,” said Chris Brook, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina. “They are not allowed to have a dress code that treats girls differently than boys.”

Brook said the girls were only allowed to wear shorts or pants on select occasions, such as taking a P.E. class.

After a final judgment is entered in the case, Charter Day will have 30 days to file an appeal in the Fourth District Court of Appeals.

Schools that receive public money cannot engage in any form of discrimination, Brook said.

“If you have a private school, you are allowed to have a dress code such as this one,” Brook said. “But, when you receive public money, you have to comply with the Constitution and it does not allow discrimination against young women.”

U.S. District Judge Malcolm Howard found the dress policy violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.

The three female students at Charter Day complained that being forced to wear skirts daily restricted their movement, made them uncomfortable in cold weather and while 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.”

Galen Sherwin, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, said Howard’s ruling supports the students’ claim that the dress code is “outdated and discriminatory.”

“This policy reflected antiquated gender stereotypes, intentionally sending the message that girls are not equal to boys,” Sherwin said. “Such discriminatory stereotypes risk following students throughout their lives, and should have no place in our public schools.”

Charter Day, a school with more than 950 students, is managed by Roger Bacon Academy Inc. (RBA), an educational management company that operates three other tuition-free, public charter schools in southeastern North Carolina.

Founder Baker Mitchell, a conservative businessman linked to the controversial billionaire Koch brothers, did not return calls on Friday.

Mitchell has reportedly stated the skirts requirement promotes “chivalry,” “traditional values,” and “mutual respect.”

Brook said Mitchell also suggested the dress code could prevent school shootings by helping to maintain discipline.

The court rejected the RBA’s argument, finding there was no evidence the policy furthered those goals or was consistent with community norms.

The court observed 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. It also found that the “skirts requirement causes the girls to suffer a burden the boys do not, simply because they are female.”

Mitchell is a former member of the Charter School Advisory Board. He resigned in 2014.

Mitchell had been the target of ethics complaints, though no violations of state ethics law were substantiated. And he was investigated by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of the Inspector General, reportedly over questionable enrollment reporting at one of the schools under his management.

Charter Day School Headmaster Laurie Benton also did not return calls on Friday.

The other three campuses managed by RBA include Columbus Charter School in Whiteville, Douglass Academy in Wilmington and South Brunswick Charter School in Southport. Collectively, the four schools enroll more than 2,200 students.

It was unclear Friday whether the other three schools operate under the same dress code as Charter Day School.

Dave Machado, director of the N.C. Office of Charter Schools, said he is not aware of any other charter schools in the state that require female students to wear skirts.

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