A judge ruled that a North Carolina charter school’s ban on girls wearing pants was unconstitutional. The school is backing down.

Chills during outdoor lunches. Forbidden to sit cross-legged on the floor like the boys. Forbidden to play football or cartwheels during recess. This is how three girls described the daily discomforts they felt due to their school’s dress code, in statements in federal court.

The judge ruled in their favor, in a court ruling that was supposed to usher in a new day for girls attending Charter Day School in North Carolina. In March 2019, U.S. District Judge Malcolm Howard ruled that the school’s dress code, which prohibited its female students from wearing shorts or slacks, was unconstitutional, violating students’ rights to equal protection under the law.

But the Leland Elementary and Middle Charter Public School in North Carolina fought back, defending its right to institute a school policy that, in the words of its founder, was “to preserve chivalry and respect among young women and men ”.

Charter Day School, which is part of a network known as Classical Charter Schools of America, filed a lawsuit in 2020, arguing that because it is run by a private, non-profit organization, it is exempt from the constitutional requirement, which applies to entities managed by the government.

The school did not respond to an interview request, but lawyers for the school told Reuters in August that the uniform code, which also requires boys to keep their hair short, is intended to teach discipline and reduce distractions.

In a statement given to Reuters by its lawyers, Charter Day School said, “Girls and boys continue to flock to these classically oriented schools, and girls academically outperform their male and female peers in public schools, while achieving extraordinary success in sports and other extracurricular activities.

On Friday, the school’s challenge was heard by the Fourth Circuit of Appeal, which will decide whether the school should be considered an “actor of the state” – and be held responsible for violating the protection clause. equal to the 14th Amendment.

Holding the scales is more than a dress code, said Galen Sherwin, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who is the girls’ lead lawyer.

“The implications here are much broader,” she said, “as it would potentially apply to any constitutional freedom that is violated under a charter school, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right not to be searched and seized, due process and beyond.

The school’s policy had been controversial before the lawsuit, which was filed in 2016. Keely Burks, then a CDS student and one of the plaintiffs in the case, wrote in an ACLU blog post that ‘she had started a petition asking for the skirt requirement. to delete.

Wearing a skirt prevented her from playing soccer during recess and doing “flips and cartwheels” like the boys in her class, she wrote. Girls also had to wear them during the winter. “Even with tights and leggings,” she said, the uniform did little to protect them from the cold.

But after getting “over 100 signatures,” the petition was confiscated by a teacher, she said.

Sherwin said the ACLU took up the case after a relative, Bonnie Peltier, contacted the organization. During a parenting orientation in 2015, Peltier learned that girls’ uniform rules require them to wear skirts, sweaters, or skorts unless they were in physical education class.

According to court documents, Peltier contacted Baker Mitchell, founder of Roger Bacon Academy, which runs Charter Day School.

In an email, Mitchell said the dress code and other school policies were written to “preserve chivalry and respect among young women and men.”

It meant “a code of conduct where women are … seen as a fragile vessel that men are supposed to care for and honor,” Mitchell wrote.

He added that a learning environment that “embodied traditional values” was needed to address concerns such as “teenage pregnancies” and “casual sex”.

The Charter Day case is the first to focus on a school uniform or grooming policy that the ACLU has adopted, Sherwin said.

“There hasn’t been a lot of litigation around school dress codes until recently,” she noted.

Lawsuits against school dress codes and grooming policies proliferated in the 1960s and 1970s, but they mostly focused on demands that boys not wear long hair, Sherwin said.

But after the enactment in 1972 of Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in all federally funded schools, this type of litigation began to disappear, as schools moved away from “distinctions based on” sex and grooming-based ”.

Over the past five years, students and parents across the country have drawn renewed attention to school dress policies which they believe are either blatantly discriminatory or unevenly enforced. Many of the high-profile cases have revolved around rules banning protective hairstyles for black college students, such as braids, cornrows, twists, locs, and extensions.

Charter Day School’s most recent textbook states that its uniform is intended to “instill discipline and maintain order so that student learning is not hampered.” “

“The school has designed its dress code to reflect the standards of the community of parents who have chosen to send their children to school,” it read.

In practice, Sherwin said, the policy restricts the ability of girls to participate equally in school activities.

The emphasis on “chivalry” is also not always as benign as the school’s founder suggested, Sherwin added. By emphasizing the difference between the sexes, “it is clearly intended to teach children that women are the weaker sex,” she argued.

A second ruling, released this year, concluded that the dress code violated Title IX rules but that the equal protection clause did not apply because the school is not a state actor.

On Friday, Sherwin argued that the charter day school is considered a government entity under North Carolina law and must uphold the rights of students in the 14th Amendment.

Riddhi Sandil, psychologist and co-founder of the Sexuality, Women and Gender Project at Columbia University’s Teachers College, said policies around school uniforms can have benefits: they can foster a sense of allegiance and community with their counterparts, as well as potentially alleviating class differences.

But they have also been used to control the bodies of young women and girls, she added.

Regarding “traditional gender values,” said Sandil, “not all traditional values ​​need to be respected”.

Sandil, whose research focuses on the stress experienced by minority groups, said that gender-restrictive dress codes like that at Charter Day School can create an environment of “constant surveillance” for girls, as they teach them. ‘they must be vigilant “at all times” so as not to attract unwanted or negative attention.

The school said its dress code is meant to help students focus on school, but Sandil said the dress code could distract from the girls’ learning experience. The foundress’ emphasis on chivalry “by definition” implies that girls are weak, she added.

Ultimately, Sandil said, she thinks it’s difficult to separate the Charter Day dress restrictions – and her commitment to “chivalry” and “tradition” – from a deeper unease at letting them. women and girls speak out.

“This is how we see a way of experiencing misogyny,” Sandil said. “You can’t trust women with a choice. “

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