4 things public schools can and cannot do when it comes to dress codes | News and Comments

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Most students encountered school dress codes in one form or another – from bans on spaghetti straps or crop tops, to restrictions on certain hairstyles, hair length and head coverings. Despite their frequency, school dress codes and grooming policies often reflect and reinforce outdated and gender stereotypes, and can be applied disproportionately against students who are more likely to be controlled or perceived as deviant by school officials. ‘school.

School dress codes, for example, may reflect sexist and prejudicial views that girls’ bodies are inherently vulgar or inappropriate, that boys will be “distracted” by girls’ bodies, and that girls’ dress and appearance girls require more regulation than those of boys. . Such policies can also punish LGBTQ+ students for not conforming to rigid and binary gender norms on proper behavior and appearance. Additionally, female students of color — and especially black girls and other girls of color — are disproportionately targeted for dress code enforcement due to intersecting racial and gender stereotypes. Black girls, in particular, are often viewed as less innocent and more adult, aggressive and threatening, and in need of less support and protection – often known as “adultification bias”.

You might be wondering where the line lies between an allowed dress code and illegal discrimination. Here’s the short answer: While public schools are allowed to have uniform dress codes and policies, they can’t discriminate against certain students or censor student expression.

Here are some basics of what public schools can and cannot do when it comes to dress codes:


Dress codes cannot be explicitly discriminatory.

This means that although dress codes may specify types of acceptable clothing, these requirements may not differ based on students’ gender, race, religion, or other protected characteristics. Under federal laws protecting against discrimination in education – including Title IX, Title VI, and the United States Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection, public schools may not enforce a dress code based on gender or racial stereotypes regarding appropriate dress or appearance. For example, a public school cannot require girls, and only girls, to wear skirts or dresses, or require boys, but not girls, to wear short hair. This also goes for special events and occasions, such as prom, graduation, or yearbook photos. For example, while a public school may require “formal attire” to be worn at special events, it may not require girls, and only girls, to wear dresses – or boys, and only boys, wear a suit.


All students, whether transgender or cisgender, should be allowed to wear clothing that is consistent with their gender identity and expression.

Indeed, the clothes, accessories and hairstyles we wear are part of how we express our identity, and because schools cannot force students to conform their appearance or behavior based on standards and rigid and discriminatory gender stereotypes. For example, a public school may not enforce a dress and grooming policy that prohibits boys, and only boys, from wearing nail polishWhere places rigid restrictions on hair length based on gender. Such dress codes marginalize non-binary, transgender, and gender-nonconforming students, and ultimately send the message that these students don’t belong.


Dress codes that are applied unevenly against particular groups of students may violate laws prohibiting discrimination.

Even when a dress code appears “neutral” on the face of it, a public school may violate students’ civil rights by targeting its dress code enforcement against certain groups of students. For example, public school dress codes that prohibit “cleavage” or “bra straps” – or impose restrictions on the length of shorts or skirts – are often targeted against girls and invite unnecessary scrutiny. and excess of girls’ bodies in schools. The ACLU has raised concerns about potential discrimination when a school’s targeted dress code sweeps up female students and when a school district suspends female athletes from training in sports bras, while allowing athletes men to train shirtless.

Additionally, black students and other students of color are often more harshly disciplined and targeted for dress code enforcement based on racist stereotypes of appropriate appearance and behavior. Notably, dress and grooming policies that prohibit certain hairstyles — including hair extensions, braids or locs — often disproportionately punish black students and are rooted in racist standards of professionalism and respectability. In 2018, the ACLU and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund raised legal concerns when a Florida school turned away a black first-grader for wearing locs on his first day of school. However, it’s worth noting that courts have been less consistent in applying anti-discrimination laws to grooming policies, and your protections can vary significantly depending on where you live.

Restrictions on head coverings and certain hairstyles also raise significant concerns about religious and racial discrimination. Students of some religions may wear head coverings or longer hairstyles for religious reasons, and public schools cannot impose restrictions contrary to the religious freedom of students.


Schools cannot discriminate based on the point of view expressed by your clothes.

The Supreme Court has recognized that public school students do not “relinquish their constitutional rights to free speech or expression at the school gate.” The First Amendment prohibits schools from choosing which opinions students are allowed to express. All opinions should be treated equally, as long as they are not obscene or disturbing. This means that if a school allows items such as t-shirts with slogans, buttons or bangleshe must allow them whatever message they express.

This is to say that the power of public schools to impose dress codes is not unlimited. Students must be informed of their rights so that they can speak up in the event of a violation. And school administrators need to review their dress codes to make sure they don’t violate students’ civil rights and freedoms.

Does your school have a dress code that treats people differently based on gender, race, or other protected characteristics? Let us know by filling out this form.

American Civil Liberties Union

Clothing and care policies based on gender stereotypes

Does your school or workplace have dress and grooming policies that treat people differently based on gender stereotypes? Share your story with us.

Click on here for a handy fact sheet outlining your rights related to school dress codes and grooming policies, gender identity and self-expression. Share this and our latest podcast episode with a friend!

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