Education Lab

ACLU lawyer warns Clovis Unified of costs for defending its dress code

Boy students at Buchanan High School donned girls’ clothing recently to protest the district’s dress code, which the ACLU says violates state law that protects gender expression.
Boy students at Buchanan High School donned girls’ clothing recently to protest the district’s dress code, which the ACLU says violates state law that protects gender expression. Special to The Bee

The Clovis Unified School District board was advised by an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Wednesday night to revise its dress code to conform with state law.

Clovis Unified trustees said they will reconsider the district’s controversial dress code after concerns were raised that the strict policy breaks state law protecting gender expression.

At a meeting Wednesday night, lawyer Abre’ Conner said the dress code shouldn’t contain different rules for boys and girls.

In a 4-3 vote last month, trustees refused to approve recommendations from the ACLU to create a single dress code standard regardless of gender.

The district’s policy breaks state law protecting gender expression, the ACLU says. At last month’s meeting, trustees said they were ready for a legal fight to keep the district’s dress code in place.

Proponents of the dress code say there’s a corresponding link between good grooming standards and the district’s high achievement; critics say it’s discriminatory and outdated.

Conner said dress code rules changed five years ago when the state Legislature amended the Education Code “to clarify that it prohibits discrimination based on both gender identity and gender expression.”

The district’s dress code, Conner said, violates California law several ways.

“First, the dress code is currently designed to have different rules for boy and girl students,” she said. “For example, the dress code provides that only girls can wear skirts, dresses and culottes. The dress code also provides that boys cannot grow their hair past their ear lobes or wear earrings. Yet this kind of requirement is plainly illegal.”

She also said the dress code violates student free expression and freedom of religion rights.

The ACLU recently settled with Manteca Unified School District, which paid $63,000 to the ACLU, in a dress code case.

“Defending discrimination costs thousands of public dollars that should go to learning,” Conner said.

Earlier this month, trustee Ginny Hovsepian, who voted against recommendations in January to change the dress code, requested that the board consider a policy “with legally appropriate exemptions” as soon as possible.

Hovsepian suggested a policy that would no longer pull boys out of class for wearing long hair or earrings.

Conner was the last of more than a dozen speakers to encourage the board to revise the dress code.

Board President Chris Casado thanked the speakers who addressed the board. “We are continuing to review our dress code as noted in our last board meeting,” he said. “We appreciate you, as part of our community, sharing your thoughts and ideas with us.”

No date has been set for when the board will revisit the policy.

Marc Benjamin: 559-441-6166, @beebenjamin

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