LELAND — On Thursday a federal court ruled that a K-8 public charter school’s uniform policy violates the U.S. Constitution by requiring female students to wear skirts to school and prohibiting them from wearing pants or shorts.
U.S. District Judge Malcolm Howard issued the ruling more than three years after a lawsuit was filed against the Charter Day School by the guardians of three students – ages 5, 10, and 14 – who asserted that wearing skirts restricted their movement and caused discomfort in various types of weather and school activities. The complaint was filed in February 2016.
The school’s dress code punished female students who wore pants or shorts, according to a release sent by the ACLU on Friday morning. Judge Howard found the policy in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.
Bonnie Peltier, mother of a former Charter Day School student and a plaintiff on the case, was happy with the ruling but frustrated that a court decision was required to ensure girls’ choice of wearing pants.
“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,” Peltier said. “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.”
The ACLU, the ACLU of North Carolina, and the law firm of Ellis and Winters LLP filed the challenge on behalf of the three students.
History of the lawsuit
According to court documents, sometime after the 2016 complaint was filed the parties failed to reach a court-hosted settlement. In September 2017, U.S. Magistrate Judge Kimberly A. Swank found misconduct by the defendants’ attorneys and ordered portions of a psychological report, authored by the defendants’ experts, to be stricken from court records. The portions in question had relied on classroom observations and teacher interviews.
An attorney at the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, Galen Sherwin, said the ruling struck down a discriminatory policy that was out of place in public schools.
“Yesterday’s ruling vindicates our young clients, who argued that the dress code policy was both outdated and discriminatory,” Sherwin said. “This policy reflected antiquated gender stereotypes, intentionally sending the message that girls are not equal to boys. Such discriminatory stereotypes risk following students throughout their lives, and should have no place in our public schools.”
According to the ACLU’s release, Charter Day’s founder Baker Mitchell has stated that the skirts requirement promotes chivalry, traditional values, and mutual respect.
“In correspondence with the ACLU’s client, Baker Mitchell went so far as to suggest that the dress code could help prevent school shootings,” the release stated. “The school argued that the policy fosters ‘mutual respect between girls and boys.’”
Case files of the court’s decision show a rejection of this argument, finding no evidence the policy furthered those goals or was “consistent with community norms.”
“Women (and girls) have, for at least several decades, routinely worn both pants and skirts in various settings, including professional settings and school settings. Females have been allowed to wear trousers or pants in all but the most formal or conservative settings since the 1970s,” stated the court’s filed decision.
The court also found that “the skirts requirement causes the girls to suffer a burden the boys do not, simply because they are female.”
Since the school’s original charter in 1999, it has required students to adhere to a uniform policy in order to “instill discipline and keep order” so that “student learning is not impeded.”
The school’s spokesperson, Winston Orzechowski, did not immediately respond for comment or whether the school will appeal the court’s ruling.
According to the school’s June 2018 financial statement, the plaintiffs are requesting attorney fees which were estimated to total more than $900,000 if the defense was unsuccessful.
The school’s charter is held by the nonprofit Charter Day School, Inc., which also holds charters for South Brunswick Charter School, Douglass Academy, and Columbus Charter School.