The board of trustees of a North Carolina charter school discovered that designing a dress code based on the view that girls are “fragile vessels” could violate both the Equal Protection Clause and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.
Parents of several students at Charter Day School (CDS) filed suit, challenging the dress code requiring K-8 girls to wear a skirt, jumper or skort unless they were in PE class or for certain field trips and other special events. Boys, on the other hand, were allowed to wear shorts or pants at school. Parents complained that the requirement of skirts for girls prevented their daughters from engaging in numerous physical activities including using the swings playing soccer, and even comfortably participating in emergency drills that required students to crawl or kneel on the floor.
The District Court concluded that CDS was a state actor for purposes of the Equal Protection Clause, but determined that dress codes are exempt from Title IX’s prohibitions against gender discrimination. On rehearing en banc, the 4th District Court of Appeals affirmed that in certain circumstances, a private actor could be engaged in state action. In this case, the court determined that “…implementing the skirts requirement based on blatant gender stereotypes about the proper place for girls and women in society” is a clear violation of the Equal Protection Clause.
The court went on to consider the Title IX claim, overturning the District Court’s ruling. Title IX provides that“…no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”
In reaching its conclusion, the 4th Circuit noted that Congress did not list any specific discriminatory practices in Title IX, but the law was instead intended to generally prohibit explicitly sex-based policies. Since the effect of the dress code was to prohibit female students from participating in certain school activities, it denied them the full benefit of their education and subjected them to discrimination because of their sex.
Accordingly, the court concluded that Title IX applies unambiguously to sex-based dress codes. The case was remanded to the District Court for further proceedings consistent with its opinion.
What this means for your district: While few schools still embrace such gender stereotypes, boards are cautioned to review dress codes and any other gender-specific policies for conformity with Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause.
Peltier v. Charter Day School, Inc., No. 20-1001 (4thCir. 2021)