Many public school districts impose strict dress codes, even uniforms, in part to desexualize the learning environment and eliminate clothes deemed vulgar, inappropriate or offensive. School districts have every right to tell students what to wear, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. The exceptions, however, are when schools' dress codes interfere with students' civil rights and rights to free speech.
What Not to Wear
About 57 percent of U.S. schools had a strict dress code in 2010, up from 47 percent in 2000, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Most courts won’t throw out school dress codes unless they’re unreasonable or discriminatory, according to the ACLU. Schools have justified the imposition of a dress code by tying it to safety concerns. Some schools mandate that students tie back their long hair in science laboratories. If schools can regulate hair, they have the authority to regulate student dress, the ACLU admits.
One Style Fits All
An increasing number of public school districts mandate uniforms. In 2000, 12 percent of public schools required them, and by 2010 that number climbed to 19 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education. That figure climbed to 35 percent for urban school districts compared to 9 percent for rural districts. In New Orleans, for instance, 95 percent of public school students wear uniforms, according to USA Today. In Cleveland, 85 percent wear them, and in Chicago, 80 percent wear them. Administrators contend that uniforms instill school pride in students and improve their performance.
I Heart Freedom
School dress codes can't restrict free speech, however. In Easton, Pa., two middle-school girls wore bracelets saying, “I Heart Boobies” in defiance of a ban. They wanted to show their support for the cause of breast cancer awareness, but the district felt the bracelets “hyper-sexualized” the school learning environment. A panel of U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals judges sided with the girls in 2013.
Fight for Self-Expression
Dress codes can't restrict lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students from the right to dress as they please. A transgender female student in Indiana forced a school district to drop its dress code in 2008, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The student wore a dress to the prom, was denied entry, sued the district and won. A student in Mississippi won a similar lawsuit in 2010 after she was barred from wearing a tuxedo to the prom. A Florida school district in 2008 was ordered to pay $325,000 to cover the legal fees for a student who sued for the right to wear shirts that said, “I Support My Gay Friends” and “Gay? Fine by Me.”
- American Civil Liberties Union: Your Right to Free Expression; Is My School Allowed to Have a Dress Code?
- USA Today: What to Wear? Schools Increasingly Make That Decision
- Institute of Education Sciences: Fast Facts; School Uniforms
- Lehighvalleylive.com: Easton Area School District to appeal 'I Heart Boobies' bracelet case to U.S. Supreme Court
- Southern Poverty Law Center: Students; Know Your Rights
- Education.com: School Uniform Debate
- Christian Science Monitor: High School Dress Code; The Battle for Keeping Up Apperances
Rudy Miller has been writing professionally since 1996. Miller is a digital team leader for lehighvalleylive.com, a local news website and content provider to the Express-Times newspaper in Easton, Pa. Miller holds a Master of Arts in English from the University of Miami.