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4th Circuit Sides With HS Girls Over Skirt Requirement

By Alex Sirek | Last updated on
A federal appeals court has found that a North Carolina school's dress code violated female students' constitutional rights. From its opening in 2000, Charter Day School enforced a strict dress code requiring female students to wear skirts, jumper skirts, or skorts exclusively. Until recently, this strict guideline was upheld regardless of the girls' personal comfort with wearing skirts. Needless to say, male students were allowed to wear pants or shorts. The Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, however, found that female students could handle the herculean task of deciding in what manner to dress themselves.

Why the Strict, Heavily-Gendered, Dress Code?

The school's founder, Baker A. Mitchell Jr., alleges that the skirt requirement created a "code of conduct where women are treated, they're regarded as a fragile vessel that men are supposed to take care of and honor." He then went on to say that the dress code aimed to, "treat girls more courteously and more gently than boys," apparently not realizing that forcing young girls to wear skirts against their will is quite possibly one of the least courteous and gentle things a school administration could do. Additionally, school officials stated that this dress code existed specifically to, "promote chivalry" and "instill discipline and keep order" within the student body. Many female students expressed discomfort and the inability to focus during class due to their “chivalrous" clothing, with one former student stating, “ I have to pay attention to the position of my legs when I'm in a skirt, and it can be very distracting and uncomfortable."

School Violated the 14th Amendment

The Fourth Circuit held that Charter Day School's skirt mandate, “blatantly perpetuates harmful gender stereotypes" and thus violated the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause, which protects against discrimination by public entities. Senior Judge Barbara Milano Keenan, writing for the majority, however, did not mince words when she wrote that Charter Day School “does not attempt to disguise the true, and improper, rationale behind its differential treatment of girls. “Chivalry may not have been a bed of roses for those forced to lie in it," she continued. Charter Day School argued that because of their status as a private institution, the equal protection clause does not apply to them. It is important to also note that 95% of this “private" institution's funding comes from federal, state, and local governments. Judges determined that the school must follow the same guidelines as public institutions, which are cannot create or enforce discriminatory dress codes. The lawsuit was brought by three guardians of female students, who were represented by the American Civil Liberties Union. According to the ACLU, this is the first ruling that essentially states that charter schools receiving government money must act in the same manner as public schools. A federal district court had previously declared the dress code unconstitutional. That was overturned 2-1 in 2021 by the Fourth Circuit. This 10-6 ruling siding with the district court was by the entire Fourth Circuit. While the dress code's violation of the 14th amendment has been settled, more rulings are to come. At a later date, a district court will evaluate whether the skirt mandate also violates Title IX, which prohibits sex-based discrimination.

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