Academic journal article Journal of Law and Education

CHALK TALKS- Eliminating Gender Stereotypes in Public School Dress Codes: The Necessity of Respecting Personal Preference

Academic journal article Journal of Law and Education

CHALK TALKS- Eliminating Gender Stereotypes in Public School Dress Codes: The Necessity of Respecting Personal Preference

Article excerpt

Ceara Sturgis was an honor student and a member of several sports teams and organizations at her high school in Wesson Mississippi, where she attended for her entire primary (K- 12) education. Ceara is a popular student, academically accomplished, and openly gay. During her senior year, when it came time to take yearbook photos, Ceara was informed that the students were required to wear formal attire in their senior portraits. Male students were required to wear tuxedos and female students were required to wear drapes, which gives the appearance of a dress. At the photography studio, Ceara initially posed in the drape, but was extremely uncomfortable and self-conscious. Ceara consistently dresses in clothing traditionally associated with the male gender, and having to now wear such "feminine" clothing made her deeply uncomfortable. Witnessing her discomfort, the photographer allowed Ceara to instead wear the tuxedo, which gave Ceara immediate relief.

Months later when Ceara received her yearbook, she flipped through the pages to discover that her photo was nowhere to be found. Because of her choice of clothing the school administration had refused to print Ceara's photo, or even her name, in the senior yearbook.1

Adolescence is a peculiar and important stage in the development of self-identity. It is the time at which we begin to define ourselves, how we relate to others, and how we fit within the world around us. One very important way in which we present ourselves to the world is through dress and appearance. Young people in particular often relish their ability to express themselves through their dress and appearance because they typically have few outlets where they can truly express themselves and feel comfortable doing so. Dress is one way in which a young person can establish a sense of identity, to herself and to others.

Unfortunately, this method of self-expression is frequently at odds with school dress codes that regulate what students can and cannot wear at school. School officials have a responsibility to provide students with a safe, secure, and productive learning environment free from as many distractions and pressures as possible. The proffered intent of school dress codes is to keep students safe and focused on their work. While this is a valid and necessary objective, there is a fine line between preventing distractions and infringing upon constitutional rights. The intent of this Note is not to encourage unbridled student expression because, understandably, certain things should be contained if they pose a threat to safety or a productive learning environment. However, the rigidity with which many school dress codes are constructed in return threaten the development of self-identity. This rigidity is the incessant perpetuation of archaic gender-based classifications and stereotypes present in most school dress codes. Policies that require students to conform to gender stereotypes and customs, regardless of their personal preference, infringe upon a student's First Amendment right to free speech and expression, as well as equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment.

This Note will analyze the constitutionality of school dress codes through the lens of Ceara Sturgis' case. Part I will discuss the framework for First Amendment challenges to gender-based dress codes established in Tinker v. Des Moines School District. Part II will discuss the equal protection framework established by the Supreme Court in United States v. Virginia. Part HI will provide various justifications that have been accepted for upholding gender-based dress codes and examine the strengths and weaknesses of those justifications. Part IV will explore the limited circumstances in which courts have recognized acceptable deviation from school dress codes, and how even those exceptions completely disregard personal preference. Part V will conclude that school dress codes must respect students self-identity and should be constructed to allow for personal preference. …

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