In January 2016, the Clovis Unified School District (Clovis Unified) in California upheld a dress code with gender-specific policies that violated California law by discriminating against LGBTQ students. The dress code provided that only girls could wear skirts, dresses, and culottes and that boys could not grow their hair past their ear lobes or wear earrings. In a four-to-three vote, the school board rejected a proposal to adopt gender-neutral language. As a result, Clovis Unified continued to suspend high school students for not adhering to the dress code, denying these students an education.
The California Education Code protects individuals regardless of gender, gender identity, or gender expression. “Gender identity” refers to a person’s gender-related identity, appearance, or behavior, whether or not different from that traditionally associated with the person’s physiology or assigned sex at birth. “Gender expression” means a person’s gender-related appearance and behavior whether or not stereotypically associated with the person’s assigned sex at birth. The legislature recognized that California students, especially LGBTQ students, do not have gender identities or expressions that conform to traditional stereotypes.
In January 2016, the ACLU and Genders and Sexualities Alliance high school student leaders challenged the school board to remove the gendered portions of the dress code. For the next five months at school board meetings, Clovis Unified board members heard from high school students and parents regarding their concerns with the dress code policy. High school students shared accounts where the Clovis Unified dress code discriminated against and harmed transgender students.
In April 2016, Clovis Unified removed the gendered portions of the dress code. In addition, Clovis Unified removed the word “exotic” from its dress code and replaced it with “distracting,” because the term “exotic” could have easily targeted students of color. Clovis Unified also added an additional appeals process for students who desired to challenge any future discriminatory dress code decisions. Throughout this process, the ACLU worked closely with the community to ensure that students, regardless of gender identity or expression, felt empowered to share why the discriminatory dress code negatively affected their education.
Attorneys and community advocates can work to ensure that dress codes comply with respective state and federal law. If the dress code is noncompliant, a complaint can be filed to compel a change in the dress code. For more information, please visit the ACLU’s My School Rights website.