All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go: Students and Their Parents Fight School Uniform Policies

November 4, 1999
In December 1965, Mary Beth Tinker, John Tinker and Chris Eckhardt, three teenagers from Des Moines, Iowa, were suspended for going to school wearing black arm bands to protest the war in Vietnam. Represented by the ACLU, the students and their families embarked on a four-year court battle that culminated in the landmark Supreme Court decision: Tinker v. Des Moines. In Tinker, the Court ruled that students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."

Mary Beth Tinker and her mother, Lorena Tinker

But battles for civil liberties never stay won. In its Tinker decision, the Supreme Court declared that "state-sponsored schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism." But three decades later, students are still subjected to repressive measures and their basic liberties are frequently trampled by school administrators and politicians.

Today, mandatory school uniforms have become a lightning rod for students and, in many cases, their parents. Anti-uniform protest movements are active in numerous school districts throughout the country, as school boards and school administrators impose rigid uniform policies, in some instances over the objection of many of the parents.

Wilson County, Tennessee is a case in point. Last June, the school board approved a "uniform" dress code for all 12,000 of the county's public school students, grades K-12. Students who don't come to school wearing the required black pants or skirts and white shirts or blouses are given a warning and their parents are notified. The second offense brings an in-school suspension. The third offense carries an out-of-school suspension, and the fourth offense means the student will go before a disciplinary board and face a possible "sentence" of transfer to MAP Academy, the alternative school.

The response of some parents was swift and negative: "It's time we let the government know that we are fed up with this," said parent Richard Dashkovitz. "Quit dictating to us what my child should wear." Dashkovitz and other parents formed the Wilson County Parents Coalition, now 400 members strong. The Coalition emphasizes that it is not "anti-uniform," but pro-choice: "We applaud any parent's choice to support uniforms... we DO feel, however, that the government is intruding into our private lives, roles as parents and the lives of our children."

Kista Vinson, Wilson County, TN

In Wilson County, the 30-year-old Tinker decision has come full-circle. Many students are wearing their uniforms under protest, and they are demonstrating their opposition by wearing small iron-on patches (in authorized uniform photo of kids colors of navy blue and hunter green) that say: "The Board Voted And All I Got Was This Lousy Uniform," and "I Miss My Real Clothes." Some of them, like 8th grader Kista Vinson and her brother, 9th grader Cory Vinson, have been suspended. The ACLU is looking into the question of whether or not their suspensions violate the Tinker decision.

The ACLU supports the parents and students who are fighting for the right to make their own, private decisions about what to wear to school, free of government interference. We dedicate this feature to them.

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Related News
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> At ACLU Urging, FL High School Ends Discriminatory Graduation Dress Code (5/23/2002)
> MA High School Settles Free Speech Case; Senior No Longer Banned from Prom and Graduation (5/15/2002)
> In Letter to UC Berkeley Chancellor, ACLU Opposes Suppression of Pro-Palestinian Student Protest (5/7/2002)
> ACLU of MA Sues Holliston School Officials for Punishing Students Over Protest Signs (5/2/2002)
> After ACLU Intervenes, Principal Apologizes to San Diego High School Student for Free Speech Violation (4/29/2002)
> ACLU President Nadine Strossen on IntellectualCapital.com: My So-called Rights

Parents Fight Back
> Wilson County Parents Coalition, Wilson County, Tennessee
> Atherton Community for Cooperation in Education, Louisville, Kentucky
> Mandatory School Uniforms - NOT! Forney, Texas
> Parental Action Committee, Polk County, Florida
> Citizens Against Uniforms Supporting Education, Walker County, Alabama
> Parents Against Mandatory Uniforms, Bossier Parrish, Louisiana

In the Courts
> Read the Historic Decision in Tinker v. DesMoines School District Case

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