Federal appeals court takes another look at Charter Day School’s dress code for girls

Parents of three girls objected to the requirement that girls wear a skirt, skorts or a jumper, but not pants like boys attending the school can wear
Published: Dec. 13, 2021 at 3:56 PM EST
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BRUNSWICK COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - On the surface, it’s a lawsuit about whether girls should be allowed to wear pants at a privately run charter school in Brunswick County. But it’s the potential far reaching impacts from this case that has over a dozen federal judges taking a very close look at the dress code at Charter Day School in Leland.

“I think this case is getting attention because it goes right to the heart of parents’ choice and choosing whichever school best matches their educational philosophy and they think will best suit their children,” Constitutional Law Attorney Aaron Streett told WECT Monday.

He is representing Charter Day School in a lawsuit first filed against the school in 2016, by the parents of three girls who were students there. They objected to the requirement that girls wear a skirt, skorts or a jumper, but not pants like boys attending the school can wear.

Charter Day School is one of several charter schools in the area that is managed by a private board, but funded with public money. Charter schools were established in large part to give parents an alternative to traditional public schools, without having to pay for private school. Charter schools are given flexibility to teach in ways they see fit, and in many cases, students at charter schools outperform their peers attending traditional public school.

Charter Day School takes a traditional approach to teaching, promoting traditional values, manners and respect. They believe their gender specific dress code instills mutual respect, discipline and order. Boys cannot wear jewelry, must wear a belt, and have to keep their hair neatly trimmed. Except for gym class and field trips, girls are required to wear some form of a skirt, and may not wear pants.

The parents who sued Charter Day School, with the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), argue the dress code restricted their daughters from moving freely at recess, and made it more difficult for them to sit in certain positions. They also said it was outdated, and feared it made their daughters feel inferior to their male classmates.

The case first went before a lower court in Brunswick County, which ruled that school dress codes did not fall under Title IX protection, a federal law banning sex discrimination in schools. But in March, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, VA, overturned that ruling, saying a dress code that requires girls to wear skirts is discriminatory and violates Title IX.

A three-judge panel from the Court of Appeals made the decision in March. The entire 16-judge body that makes up the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals later voted to review the decision. That review happened on Friday.

Legal experts say these type of reviews tend to happen when major issues are at stake, or the larger court disagrees with the decision of the smaller panel. The major legal issues up for debate in this case are whether a school’s dress code is governed by Title IX, and whether Charter Day School is a state actor. While the school is publicly funded, no one is required to attend there. Parents elect to send their children to Charter Day School, and the school’s track record is strong enough that there’s a wait list to get in.

Streett says this case is about much more than just the dress code.

“I think it’s also important to understand this is the kind of choice that could affect any charter school, no matter what educational philosophy. And if the Court of Appeals or any other court say that charter schools are essentially state actors, then they will be back in many ways on a level playing field with traditional government run public schools, which is exactly what the North Carolina legislature was trying to move away from in charter schools,” Street explained of the far reaching implications of this case.

Attorneys for the ACLU were not immediately available for comment, but some judges who have reviewed this case over the last year have echoed concerns about Charter Day School’s dress code.

“No this is not 1821 or 1921. It’s 2021. Women serve in combat units of our armed forces. Women walk in space... serve on our country’s Supreme Court, in Congress, and today a woman is Vice President of the United States. Yet, girls in certain public schools in North Carolina are required to wear skirts to comply with the outmoded and illogical viewpoint that courteous behavior on the part of both sexes cannot be achieved unless girls wear clothing that reinforces sex stereotypes and signals that girls are not as capable and resilient as boys,” Fourth Circuit Court Judge Barbara Milano Keenan wrote in her dissent from the three-judge panel’s decision earlier this year.

The entire Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decision following Friday’s review of the case could come out in the next three to six months.

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