The American Civil Liberties Union is planning its next course of action after the Clovis Unified school board unexpectedly refused to revise a decades-old dress code that breaks state gender-rights laws.
In a 4-3 vote on Wednesday night, the board rejected proposed changes that would have allowed boys to wear long hair and earrings. The proposal also would’ve removed language that skirts and dresses are only for girls.
Trustees acknowledged the possibility of a lawsuit but voted to uphold the policy anyway.
This is not the first time the school district has been willing to go to court over boys’ hair. In 1994, students filed a lawsuit against the district because of the same policy. The district won the case and spent about $195,000 in court fees.
Several parents who attended Wednesday’s meeting in support of the strict dress code vowed to help bankroll any potential litigation.
The dress code is worth fighting for, Clovis Unified Trustee Sandra Bengel told parents. “This has been a really tough decision. Our administration has researched up and down how to get around it legally,” she said. “We’ve fought this before and we won. It warmed my heart to hear you say you’d give that support.”
I’m so tired of my rights and my conservative values being trampled on because of this gender equality.
Clovis parent Melissa Fairless
Trustee Ginny Hovsepian said, “Just because it’s a law doesn’t mean we need to put up with it. This community is being assaulted from afar with what I believe is an overreaching law regarding gender equity. I believe it’s un-American to run from a fight for a good cause.”
Then and now, the district’s argument is the same: There’s a corresponding link between good grooming standards and high achievement.
But the policy directly violates state education code, according to ACLU attorney Abré Conner. In 2011, the Legislature amended the law to explicitly include gender expression as a protected class to “make clear that discrimination based on failure to conform to narrow gender stereotypes is against the law.”
“CUSD told us that they were going to comply with the law, and we were happy to hear that, and for them to now vote against revisions that would bring them into compliance is a big issue for us,” Conner said Thursday. “We were shocked that they decided not to comply with the law. At this point, we haven’t ruled out any potential strategies including a lawsuit, and we are currently evaluating our next steps.
“When schools require a certain hair length only for boys, or say that girls can wear earrings but boys cannot wear earrings, they discriminate and prevent students from learning in an inclusive school climate.”
District spokeswoman Kelly Avants said that prior to the ACLU’s involvement, the district already had been working on revising the dress code, and the recommendations that the board denied came from school employees and students.
California Department of Education spokeswoman Charlene Cheng would not comment on the case but said the department “opposes discrimination in all its forms.”
When schools require a certain hair length only for boys, or say that girls can wear earrings but boys cannot wear earrings, they discriminate and prevent students from learning in an inclusive school climate.
Abré Conner, attorney for the ACLU of Northern California
Fresno County Superintendent Jim Yovino said in a statement Thursday that “this is an issue to be handled by Clovis Unified.”
“Local school boards are elected by their constituents to be the voice of their community,” Yovino said. “This was clearly a difficult decision.”
Clovis parent Melissa Fairless spoke Wednesday night in favor of the strict dress code, saying trustees were being pressured by the ACLU. She also spoke out against the organization’s fight for transgender bathrooms in schools.
“Let’s get real: What we’re doing is looking at a lawsuit if you don’t vote for this. I’m sick and tired of the ACLU. Because of them, I can have a male come into my daughter’s bathroom,” she said. “I’m so tired of my rights and my conservative values being trampled on because of this gender equality. Stand up for what Clovis believes in and say we are going to take this to court and we are going to fight this.”
As in the 1994 case, supporters of the dress code continue to point to “the Clovis way of life,” saying the district’s standards are higher than others, and attributing its high test scores to such standards.
“I think Clovis is a way of life. We have standards,” said Clovis Unified graduate Josh Fulfer, whose children now attend Clovis schools. “This goes a lot further than hair past the collar. It’s about caving in. I really believe if you cave to this, in two to three years you’ll have the same meeting about taking out ‘under God’ (from the Pledge of Allegiance) and no prayer before the board meeting.”
I heard when I moved out here that this was ‘Clovis’ and I sometimes still hear that I live in ‘Clovis,’ but guess what Clovis? It’s 2016.
Isabel Machado, mother of a future Clovis Unified student
In addition to Bengel and Hovsepian, trustees Richard Lake and Betsy Sandoval voted against making changes.
Lake said he took issue with any concerns about gender equality.
“This is totally centered around something called gender equity. It makes absolutely no sense … that has nothing to do with what we’re trying to accomplish,” he said. “We shouldn’t be changing things. A woman’s a woman and a man’s a man, and there’s a difference.”
School board president Chris Casado, who voted with trustees Brian Heryford and Jim Van Volkinburg for the proposed changes, said the board’s vote was wrong – but he agrees with trustees’ opinions about it.
“I think we have potentially left for ourselves some unfriendly future issues that might develop, and I think that our obligation is protecting this district from unnecessary litigation and to follow the law,” he said. “If you’re talking about what you believe in your heart and your mind, I agree with everybody up there that voted ‘no’ 100 percent. But that’s not what we were elected to do.”
Isabel Machado, who recently moved to the area and whose son will one day attend Clovis schools, was the only person to speak in support of changes to the dress code. The board had to quiet the audience because there was so much outcry while Machado spoke.
“Honestly, I’m just shocked,” she said. “I heard when I moved out here that this was ‘Clovis,’ and I sometimes still hear that I live in ‘Clovis,’ but guess what Clovis? It’s 2016.”