Federal appeals court rules Title IX protects students from discriminatory dress codes

Title IX, the federal law banning sex discrimination in schools, prohibits discriminatory dress codes in a North Carolina charter school that requires girls to wear skirts, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday.

The court sent the case involving a dress code enacted by Charter Day School Inc., back to the trial court to decide if the skirt requirement violates the law.

The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of North Carolina, and the law firm of Ellis & Winters LLP originally filed a challenge to the skirt requirement in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina on behalf of three North Carolina students.

“We’re pleased that today’s decision recognizes that Title IX’s broad promise of equal opportunity for girls applies to discriminatory dress codes,” said Galen Sherwin, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. “Dress codes that enforce different rules based on old-fashioned conventions of how girls should dress, look, and behave while intentionally signaling that girls are not equal to boys perpetuate gender stereotypes and should have no place in our public schools.”

Sherwin expressed disappointment, however, that the court did not find that Charter Day School violated the students’ constitutional guarantee of equal protection under the law.

“We will continue to fight for our clients and girls like them across the country,” she said.

The District Court had granted summary judgement to plaintiffs on the equal protection claim but to the defendants on the Title IX claim, contending that Title IX did not extend to school dress codes.

In its decision Monday, the Appeals Court ruled that the public charter school was not subject to an equal protection claim because it was “not a state actor.” Charter schools are public schools but are free of many of the rules and regulations traditional public schools must follow.

“At the same time, however, we determine that claims of sex discrimination related to a dress code are not categorically excluded from the scope of Title IX,” wrote Judge A. Marvin Quattlebaum Jr.

Judge Barbara Milano Keenan wrote an opinion, concurring in part and dissenting in part.

“Women serve in combat units of our armed forces. Women walk in space and contribute their talents at the International Space Station. Women serve on our country’s Supreme Court, in Congress, and, today, a woman is vice president of the United States,” Keenan said. “Yet, girls in certain public schools in North Carolina are required to wear skirts to comply with the outmoded and illogical viewpoint that courteous behavior on the part of both sexes cannot be achieved unless girls wear clothing that reinforces sex stereotypes and signals that girls are not as capable and resilient as boys.”

The three female students in the case 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.

“I wanted my daughter and all the other girls at her school to know that they can learn, move, and play on equal terms as the boys in school,” said Bonnie Peltier, the mother of a former Charter Day School student who was a client in the case. “I’m relieved that a federal court of appeals recognized that forcing girls to wear skirts or miss classroom instruction time can be a form of sex discrimination.”

Irena Como, a senior staff attorney at ACLU of North Carolina, said such dress codes are harmful to women and must be stamped out.

“Uniform policies that prohibit girls from wearing pants to school not only infringe on girls’ right to learn, but are also a transparent tool to control girls’ bodies and disproportionately harm LGBTQ+ and Black and Brown students,” Como said.

Charter Day, a school with more than 900 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 is a conservative businessman who has reportedly stated that the skirt requirement promotes “chivalry,” “traditional values,” and “mutual respect.”

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