At ACLU Urging, FL High School Ends Discriminatory Graduation Dress Code

Affiliate: ACLU of Florida
May 23, 2002 12:00 am

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MIAMI — The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and Equality Florida today applauded the decision of a local high school principal to do away with a discriminatory dress code which required senior girls to wear dresses or skirts with hemlines above their graduation gowns during the ceremony.

“Forcing girls to wear a skirt or dress reinforces stereotypical gender norms that are harmful to all students,” said Kate Kendell, Executive Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “We applaud Bloomingdale High School for responding with reason and common sense.”

On May 22, ACLU of Florida cooperating attorney Karen M. Doering sent a letter to the school board’s attorney on behalf of Alicia Traurig and Amber Smith, graduating seniors at Bloomingdale High School in Valrico who want to wear dress slacks to graduation. In the letter, Doering said that the policy of unfairly discriminates against female students in violation of the “students’ constitutional right to privacy, liberty, and First Amendment protections.”

The ACLU letter strongly advised the school to amend its policy to accommodate the requests of Traurig and Smith, along with dozens of other female students who also objected to the outdated and biased policy. Within hours after receiving the letter, the school agreed to change its policy and to permit girls to wear slacks to graduation.

“Every year, when graduation rolls around, school districts across the country become obsessed with dictating what students can wear underneath their gowns,” said Randall Marshall, Legal Director of the ACLU of Florida. “And in almost every circumstance, the students have prevailed.”

Although the situation at Bloomingdale High School has been resolved, several other high schools in the district appear to have identical policies requiring female students to wear dresses or skirts as a condition of participating in commencement ceremonies. According to Mark Hart, the school district’s Public Affairs Director, there is no district-wide policy. Each principal is permitted to set the dress code policy for his or her school.

The ACLU of Florida is encouraging students who attend schools with similar bans to contact the ACLU office in Miami.

“We want to see this discriminatory policy eliminated in all district schools,” said Doering. “Many female students would like to wear dress slacks to graduation. These young women are not asking to wear blue jeans or other casual clothing. They simply want to wear formal, professional clothing.”

The ACLU letter to the Hillsborough County School Board’s attorney follows:

May 22, 2002 Mr. Crosby Few, Esq.
Few & Ayala
109 N. Brush Street, Ste. 202
Tampa, FL 33602-4159

RE: Hillsborough County School Board – Bloomingdale High School graduation dress code

Dear Mr. Few:

I am writing on behalf of the ACLU of Florida, Equality Florida, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and two of our clients regarding Bloomingdale High School’s requirement that female graduating seniors wear a skirt or dress to graduation. According to the flyer distributed to graduating seniors, the proper attire for girls is “Dress or shirt [sic] and blouse (which does not show beneath the gown).”

The school’s requirement that all female students wear skirts or dresses with hemlines above their graduation gown, and male students must wear dark dress trousers and a tie, constitutes impermissible gender bias and discrimination and violates female students’ constitutional rights to privacy, liberty, and first amendment protections. The school may impose a requirement of “formal attire” for graduation. However, to mandate dress based upon outdated notions that girls wear dresses and boys wear pants is impermissible. Differential treatment based upon sex is constitutional only if supported by compelling governmental interest, and there is certainly no compelling governmental interest in forcing girls to wear dresses. We therefore request that the policy be amended to permit female students to wear dress slacks or a pantsuit.

On Tuesday, May 21, 2002, graduating senior Alicia Traurig asked to speak to Bloomingdale principal B.J. Stelter about the dress code policy, and was referred instead to assistant principal Barry Davis. Alicia requested that female students be permitted to wear dress slacks and explained to Mr. Davis that she does not own or wear short skirts or dresses. Mr. Davis responded that the policy would not be changed because the dress code is based on tradition and graduation is “a formal business ceremony and young ladies wear skirts and dresses for business ceremonies.”

Our clients, and dozens of other female graduating seniors, would like to wear dress slacks to graduation, rather than a skirt or dress. These young women are not asking to wear blue jeans or other casual pants to graduation. They simply want to wear formal, professional clothing that does not require them to expose their legs to all onlookers. Although females were often required to wear skirts and dresses at formal events several decades ago, pantsuits or dress slacks have been an acceptable alternative in courtrooms and other professional settings for years.

For many female students, including our clients, being forced to wear a skirt or dress is extremely upsetting in that it forces them to conform to an antiquated gender stereotypical mode of dress from an era when women were denied many of the same rights and opportunities as their male counterparts. Moreover, since the school’s dress code further requires that the skirt or dress not show beneath their gown, this requires female students, including our clients, to wear a skirt or dress with a short hemline. This forces the female students to expose their legs. Requiring female students to wear clothing that exposes portions of their bodies violates their sense of privacy and unnecessarily causes many young women to feel uncomfortable and vulnerable.

This requirement is not only emotionally traumatizing to these young women, it is also illegal. We are writing now in an effort to resolve this situation amicably, without litigation. We respectfully demand that you rescind or amend the school’s policy requiring girls to wear dresses or skirts at graduation and allow girls the option of wearing a formal pantsuit or dress slacks.

If we do not hear back from you by 12:00 noon on Thursday, May 23, 2002, we will file an emergency motion in federal court seeking relief on behalf of our clients.

Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter. Please give me a call at 813/873-2357 if you would like to discuss this matter in more detail.

Karen M. Doering

cc: Mark Hart, Director Office of Public Affairs

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