North Carolina School Dress Code Promoting 'Traditional Values' Discriminated Against Female Students, Judge Rules

Picture of an empty school classroom. Earlier this week, the ACLU announced it had won a case against a North Carolina charter school's dress code that discriminated by gender. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

A charter school in North Carolina that banned female students from wearing pants and shorts in an effort to promote "traditional values" violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution and engaged in sex discrimination, a federal judge ruled earlier this week.

The uniform requirement will no longer be allowed to continue at Charter Day School in Leland, which serves kindergarten through 8th grade students in Brunswick County. According to the nixed policy, female students at the school had to wear "skorts," "skirts," and "jumpers" and were barred from options available to the male student population. Parents who filed the lawsuit with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union argued that the rule penalized female students by constricting their movement during playtimes and left them colder than male peers during winter months.

"The skirts requirement causes the girls to suffer a burden the boys do not, simply because they are female," U.S. District Judge Malcolm Howard agreed in his ruling.

The case was brought under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which bans sex discrimination from schools that receive federal funds. Charter Day is a nonprofit and receives money from the federal government, although it contracts with for-profit educational management company The Roger Bacon Academy.

Parents who filed the suit, along with pro bono support from Ellis & Winters LLP and the ACLU of North Carolina, hailed the ruling. In a statement, the mother of one student said it was disappointing that the matter had to be litigated in the first place.

"All I wanted was for my daughter and every other girl at school to have the option to wear pants so she could play outside, sit comfortably, and stay warm in the winter," said Bonnie Peltier, the mother of a former Charter Day School student, in a statement provided by the ACLU. "We're happy the court agrees, but it's disappointing that it took a court order to force the school to accept the simple fact that, in 2019, girls should have the choice to wear pants."

Baker Mitchell, the school's founder, had argued in a 2015 email exchange with Peltier that the dress code "demonstrably contributed to producing a focused learning environment with respectful, dignified student relationships."

Mitchell, who founded a swath of charter schools in North Carolina, also seemed to suggest that the uniform policy could help offset instances of teen pregnancy and sexual assault. He also attempted to connect the dress code's introduction with an attempted return to "chivalry" following the Columbine High School shooting.

"As you may recall, the tumult of the 1990s was capped off by the Columbine shootings April 20,1999 in which two students killed thirteen classmates and injured twenty-four others – fourteen of whom were female," he wrote. "The Trustees, parents and other community supporters were determined to preserve chivalry and respect among young women and men in this school of choice."

"There was felt to be a need to restore, and then preserve, traditional regard for peers," he said.