School Superintendents Asked to Check and Change Discriminatory Graduation Dress Policies

Affiliate: ACLU of Virginia
May 28, 2010 12:00 am

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ACLU of Virginia will assist graduating students facing sex discrimination.


Richmond, VA – The ACLU of Virginia today sent letters to every public school superintendent asking them to check for graduation ceremony dress policies that discriminate on the basis of gender and to take corrective action where such policies exist.

The ACLU also encourages students facing such discriminatory policies to contact the organization for assistance.

The ACLU reports that some Virginia schools require different attire for boys and girls, a violation of federal law prohibiting gender discrimination in public schools. The most common difference is dresses for girls and pants for boys, but some schools have gone so far as to require different colored shoes based on gender. How many schools have such policies is not known.

“These are almost certainly anachronistic rules left over from a time when gender discrimination was more widely tolerated, and girls and boys dressed more distinctly,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “Both the law and our attire have evolved, and it is time for the schools in Virginia to catch up.”

“As small as this issue may seem to some, it is not to those who find themselves affected by it,” added Willis. “For them it is a very real imposition and strong reminder that we still have a long way to go to throw off the all the vestiges of sex discrimination.”

“This is not a free expression issue,” said Willis. “Within reason, schools may require students to dress in a certain way for graduation ceremonies. But schools may not have one set of rules for girls and another for boys.”

The ACLU learned in early May that at least one Richmond-area high school requires female students to wear white dresses to graduation, while male students must wear white button-down shirts with pants. One girl opposed the policy, preferring to wear pants instead of a dress. She faced some resistance but eventually was told she would be allowed to wear pants.

Several years ago, the ACLU provided formal assistance to two students who objected to their schools’ graduation dress codes, which required dresses for girls and pants for boys. Letters to the principals of Bayside High School in Virginia Beach and Menchville High School in Newport News resulted in new non-discriminatory rules. Most such complaints to the ACLU are handled by advising students, who then successfully advocate for themselves.

Students seeking the ACLU’s assistance can email or call (804) 644-8080. The letter and a brief legal memo sent to school superintendents can be found online at:

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