Under Pressure, Suffolk School Board Backs Off Discriminatory Gender-Based Dress Code Policy

Affiliate: ACLU of Virginia
March 5, 2012 12:00 am

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New substitute proposal to ban attire that causes disruptions concerns ACLU, which asks that students and parents report problems if it is adopted.

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Suffolk County, VA – The Suffolk County School Board has dropped its attempt to adopt a dress code policy that the ACLU of Virginia claimed was unconstitutionally vague and discriminated against students based on their gender.

The policy that was scheduled to be considered at this Thursday’s school board meeting prohibited “[a]ny clothing worn by a student that is not in keeping with a student’s gender and causes a disruption and/or distracts others from the educational process or poses a health or safety concern.”

The school board claimed that it was necessary to protect students from being bullied or harassed for wearing gender nonconforming clothes.

However, according to a letter sent by ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca K. Glenberg to School Board members on February 9, the proposed policy was a “virtual invitation to a lawsuit” because it would be impossible for students to predict what clothing belongs exclusively to one gender or another, and it violated the federal law prohibiting educational institutions from discriminating on the basis of sex.

“By abandoning the original policy, the school has properly recognized that students cannot be disciplined for failing to conform to gender stereotypes,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis.

“The policy would have been especially problematic for gay and transgender students, who may be more likely than others to be punished for dressing in ways that defy gender stereotyping,” added Willis. “School officials are right to be concerned about bullying and harassment of these students, but if that’s the case they should be punishing the harasser, not blaming the victim.”

The ACLU of Virginia was prepared to announce its intention to mount a legal challenge to the policy when it learned earlier today that new language has been substituted and would be considered at this Thursday’s meeting. The newly proposed policy makes no mention of gender, but bans all clothes that cause a “substantial disruption and/or distraction.”

The new dress policy, which is posted on Suffolk County’s website, reads in part: “In order for clothes to be prohibited… the substantial disruption and/or distraction caused by the student clothing must be sufficiently documented in writing by the building principal or his or her designee, and the documentation must set forth the time, date, location, and the specifics of the substantial disruption and /or distraction…caused by student clothing.”

“We are concerned that the new policy may merely be the old one dressed up to deflect a legal challenge,” said Willis. “If the new proposal is adopted on Thursday, we’ll be asking students and parents to closely monitor its implementation to make sure it is not applied in a way that discriminates based on gender or sexual orientation.”

Glenberg’s February 9 letter may be found at https://acluva.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/20120209SuffolkDressCodeSc….

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