Shivering during outdoor lunches. Barred from sitting cross-legged on the floor like the boys. Restricted from playing soccer or doing cartwheels during recess. This is how three girls described the daily discomforts they experienced as a result of their school’s dress code, in statements to a federal court.
The judge ruled in their favor, in a court decision that was supposed to usher in a new day for girls attending Charter Day School in North Carolina. In March 2019, U.S. District Judge Malcolm Howard found that the school’s dress code, which banned its female students from wearing shorts or pants, was unconstitutional, violating the students’ rights to equal protection under the law.
But the elementary and middle public charter school in Leland, N.C., fought back, defending its right to institute a school policy that, in its founder’s words, was meant to “preserve chivalry and respect among young women and men.”
Charter Day School, part of a network known as Classical Charter Schools of America, filed an appeal in 2020, arguing that because it is run by a private nonprofit, it is exempt from the constitutional requirement, which applies to government-run entities.
The school did not respond to an interview request, but lawyers for the school told Reuters in August that the uniform code, which also requires boys to keep their hair short, is meant to teach discipline and reduce distractions.
In a statement given to Reuters by its lawyers, Charter Day School said: “Girls and boys continue to flock to these classically oriented schools, and girls academically outperform their male peers and their female public-school peers, as well as achieving extraordinary success in athletic and other extracurricular endeavors.”
On Friday, the school’s challenge was heard by the Fourth Circuit of Appeals, which will decide whether the school should be considered a “state actor” - and be held responsible for violating the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
Hanging in the balance is more than a dress code, said Galen Sherwin, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union who is the lead counsel for the girls.
“The implications here are far broader,” she said, “because it potentially would apply to any constitutional freedom that is being infringed in a charter school setting, from free speech, freedom of religion, the right to be from search and seizure, due process and beyond.”
The school’s policy had been controversial before the lawsuit, which was brought forward in 2016. Keely Burks, then a CDS student and one of the plaintiffs in the case, wrote in an ACLU blog post that she had started a petition asking for the skirt requirement to be removed.
Wearing a skirt prevented her from playing soccer during recess and doing “flips and cartwheels” like the boys in her class, she wrote. Girls were also required to wear them during the winter. “Even with tights and leggings,” she said, the uniform did little to protect them from the cold.
But after getting “more than 100 signatures,” the petition was confiscated by a teacher, she said.
Sherwin said the ACLU took up the case after a parent, Bonnie Peltier, reached out to the organization. During a 2015 parent orientation, Peltier learned that girls’ uniform rules required them to wear skirts, jumpers or skorts unless they were in physical education classes.
According to court documents, Peltier reached out to Baker Mitchell, founder of the Roger Bacon Academy, which runs the Charter Day School.
In an email, Mitchell said the dress code and other school policies were written to “preserve chivalry and respect among young women and men.”
This meant “a code of conduct where women are ... regarded as a fragile vessel that men are supposed to take care of and honor,” Mitchell wrote.
He added that a learning environment that “embodied traditional values” was necessary to address concerns such as “teen pregnancies” and “casual sex.”
The Charter Day case is the first one centered on a school uniform or grooming policy that the ACLU has taken up, Sherwin said.
“There has not been a lot of litigation around school dress codes until recently,” she noted.
Lawsuits against school dress codes and grooming policies proliferated in the 1960s and 1970s, but they primarily focused on requirements that barred boys from wearing their hair long, Sherwin said.
But after the 1972 enactment of Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in all federally funded schools, that kind of litigation began to die down, as schools moved away from “sex-based distinctions based on grooming.”
In the past five years, students and parents across the country have drawn renewed attention to school dress policies they say are either blatantly discriminatory or enforced unevenly. Many of the most high-profile cases have revolved around rules banning protective hair styles for Black students, such as braids, cornrows, twists, locs and extensions.
Charter Day School’s most recent handbook says its uniform is meant to “instill discipline and keep order so that student learning is not impeded.”
“The school has designed its dress code to reflect the standards of the community of parents who have chosen to send their children to the school,” it reads.
In practice, Sherwin said, the policy restricts girls’ ability to participate equally in school activities.
Nor is the emphasis on “chivalry” always as benign as the school’s founder suggested, Sherwin added. With its emphasis on gender difference, “it’s clearly intended to teach kids that women are the weaker sex,” she argued.
A second ruling, issued this year, found that the dress code violated Title IX rules but that the Equal Protection Clause did not apply because the school is not a state actor.
On Friday, Sherwin argued that Charter Day School is considered a government entity under North Carolina law and must uphold students’ 14th Amendment rights.
Riddhi Sandil, a psychologist and co-founder of the Sexuality, Women and Gender Project at Columbia University’s Teachers College, said school uniform policies can have benefits: They can foster a sense of allegiance and community with their counterparts, as well as potentially alleviate class differences.
But they have also been used to control young women and girls’ bodies, she added.
When it comes to “traditional gender values,” Sandil said, “not all traditional values need to be upheld.”
Sandil, whose research focuses on stress experienced by minority groups, said gender-restrictive dress codes like Charter Day School’s can create an environment of “constant surveillance” for girls, teaching them they must be vigilant “at all times” to not draw unwanted or negative attention.
The school said its dress code is intended to help students focus on school, but Sandil said the dress code could distract from girls’ learning experience. The founder’s emphasis on chivalry “by definition” implies that girls are weak, she added.
Ultimately, Sandil said, she believes that it is hard to separate Charter Day’s clothing restrictions - and its commitment to “chivalry” and “tradition” - from a deeper discomfort with letting women and girls express themselves.
“That’s how we see one way of how misogyny is alive,” Sandil said. “You cannot trust women with choice.”