5 Things Public Schools Can and Can’t Do When It Comes to Dress Codes

Last week, a school principal and security guard threatened a senior named Summer at Hickory Ridge High School in Harrisburg, North Carolina, with arrest for violating her school dress code because she was wearing a shirt that showed her collarbone and shoulders. Defiant, she spoke out — protesting the discipline and refusing to budge until the principal called her mom — though she did put on a jacket. After the school suspended her, threatened her with expulsion, and barred her from walking in graduation, many of her classmates protested her treatment on social media — and the case blew up in the press.

Such nonsense isn’t confined to North Carolina.

The same week, a Massachusetts' charter school made headlines for penalizing two African-American sisters for violating their school dress code by wearing their hair in braids with extensions. The state attorney general has ordered the school to modify its policy, and the ACLU, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights have jointly filed a complaint with the state education department on her behalf. And a similar case just arose in Florida, where a student, Jenesis Johnson, was told her Afro was “extreme and faddish and out of control” and told she could not return to school unless she changed her hairstyle.

These cases are the latest examples of schools drawing mounting protest — and even legal action — based on their dress codes. Yet dress codes are ubiquitous, which may leave you wondering where the line is between a permissible dress code and unlawful discrimination. The short answer is that while public schools are allowed to have dress codes and uniform policies, they cannot be discriminatory or censor student expression.

Here are a few of the basics on what public schools can and can’t do when it comes to dress codes.

  • Dress codes can’t be explicitly discriminatory. That means that while dress codes may specify types of attire that are acceptable, these requirements should not differ based on students’ sex or their race, for that matter — though race distinctions in dress codes tend not to be overt. This is because, under federal laws protecting against discrimination in education, Title IX and the Constitution’s equal protection guarantee, schools can’t base either a dress code or its enforcement on sex stereotypes — generalizations about what types of clothing or appearance are appropriate for a boy or a girl. For example, a dress code can’t require girls, and only girls, to only wear skirts or dresses and boys, and only boys, to wear pants or a jacket and tie. The same goes for ceremonial events and special occasions, like prom, yearbook photographs, or graduation. A school can specify “formal attire,” or even “gowns or tuxedoes,” but it can’t require that girls, and only girls, wear gowns or that boys, and only boys, wear a tux.
  • All students, whether transgender or cisgender, must be allowed to wear clothing consistent with their gender identity and expression. Again, this is because the clothing we wear is part of the way we express our identity and because schools can’t stereotype students’ appearance or behavior based on their gender or sex assigned at birth.
  • Dress codes that are targeted at or unevenly enforced against particular groups of students may violate laws prohibiting race and sex discrimination. Dress codes are frequently unevenly enforced against girls for wearing clothing that is considered a “distraction” to boys in the classroom — reinforcing stereotypes about how “good girls” dress and privileging boys’ ability to concentrate over girls’ comfort and ability to learn.

    Though today’s dress codes are unlikely to be explicitly race-based, there can also be stark racial overtones. The Malden policy — in addition to prohibiting hair extensions, a style predominantly worn by Black girls — also prohibits “hair more than 2 inch (sic.) in thickness or height.” The policy thus effectively prohibits many Black students of either sex from wearing their hair “naturally” without cutting it extremely short — making it abundantly clear which students the school is concerned about distracting versus being distractions. This type of intersecting race and sex discrimination is illegal.
  • Schools can’t discriminate based on the viewpoint expressed by your clothing. The Supreme Court has recognized that public school students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” The First Amendment prohibits schools from picking and choosing which views students are allowed to express. All views have to be treated equally, so long as they are not obscene or disruptive. This means that if a school permits items like t-shirts with slogans, buttons, or wristbands, it has to permit them no matter what message they express.
  • Grooming codes regulating hair length, jewelry, or ear piercing can raise many of the same issues, though the courts have been less consistent about applying antidiscrimination laws in those contexts. For this reason, protections may vary greatly based on where you live. Note also that school dress or grooming codes may have to be adapted when they conflict with students’ religious freedom, such as prohibiting headscarves.

What this boils down to is that schools’ authority to impose dress codes is not unlimited. Students should be informed of their rights so they can speak out if there are violations. And school administrators would do well to reexamine their dress codes to guard against being the next target for protest, whether in the classroom, on the internet, or in court.

Click here for a handy fact sheet outlining your rights related to school dress codes, gender, and self-expression.

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You going to babysit while I work? Because if my kid is doing school online he's not going to school while I'm at work and I need someone to watch him while I go to work to pay for those online courses.


First of all, parents need to realize that what flies in their house, doesn't fly in the school district's house. Any clothing that is distracting, worn by boys or girls, is understandably not permitted. No gang clothing, white power clothing, or clothing that promotes drugs or alcohol. Suspending a student for ethnic hair is ridiculous. If a student attends a private school, then the school can dictate clothing, and hair. It's just the way it is.


If you're distracted by the clothes someone else is wearing you are the problem not the person wearing the clothing that has distracted you. Maybe you need ADHD medication or something but clothing really should be a distraction.


Shouldn't not should.


I agree with the original statement. If someone is walking down the street naked it is that person at fault for being distracting not the person being distracted. Grow up and recognize that your choices effect others whether or not they want those consequences.


My teacher told us the school is the property to us and the American civil union does not apply to us we have to agree e.g. I don't care about lockers because it's schools property they just complain because it's their property but it's not. The teacher says "When you arrive all your rights are stripped right off the door what you like it or not" it's like o_o like the ACLU did not exist


You may want to inform your teacher that you know your rights are not stripped from you when you enter the school because she's/he's grossly misinformed.


If a child chooses to wear clothing with the rebel flag to school I'm happy that someone has their back when they are expressing themselves.


I may not approve of wearing a failed Nations Flag but I'll support anyone's right to do so. Being pathetic should not ever be illegal.


Public schools are authoritarian and out of hand. This is another example. Public schools remind me of the book, "Animal Farm." The Principals are becoming the Napoleon pig-like figures that have children arrested for felonies for petty rule breaking; the teachers the dogs that carry it out, & who themselves are immune to these rules along with their children. The middle class & working poor families are doing the hard work of educating that the school employees get paid for & paid for with the fruits of their labor-like 'Boxer' & 'Mollie'- with taxdollars. Common Core Math is so inadequate and abusive to young devoloping minds that if you want your child to learn basic math & not self mutulate by high school to deal with the trauma it causes- then math gets taught at home by the parents. The federal education budget allotted to districts- they must feel isn't enough money to treat students humanely it seems...what a terrible society we have become when those whose jobs are to educate are turning into puppets for a Fascist state & lashing out at our kids...


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