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Court Battles Prompt Districts to Reexamine Dress Codes

Cartoon children wearing different types of clothes.

For decades, Texas public school dress codes have generally gone unexamined by the public. Administrators and school boards have largely had the freedom to determine what’s right for their communities, and for many districts, creating a dress code has been considered a one-time event.

But a recent uptick in legal challenges is causing districts throughout the state to take a second look at their dress code policies. Rules that were once considered standard are now under fire, particularly if those rules single out groups by gender or have a disparate impact on certain protected characteristics, like race, gender, or religion. “Districts have typically had a lot of leeway to create their own dress codes,” says TASB Legal Services Senior Attorney Jasmine Wightman. “But recent court rulings are drawing greater attention to school dress codes throughout Texas.”

School Dress Codes in the Spotlight

State officials don’t make many recommendations when it comes to school dress codes, and as such, districts across the state have been largely on their own in deciding whether a dress code would work for their school community. District policies typically cite a number of reasons for adopting a dress code, including minimizing health and safety hazards, teaching grooming and hygiene, and preventing disruptions. However, research on the benefits of dress codes for students has been inconclusive.

In its FAQ for school district personnel and administrators, the Texas Education Agency states only that “school districts have the authority to adopt dress codes which may apply differently on a gender basis” as long as dress codes are not "too vague to give fair notice of what is prohibited" and do not “infringe on religious expression.” The Texas Education Code provides guidelines for adopting school uniforms, but there are no clear standards for dress code policies. Guidance has mostly come from a string of court cases across the country, including in Texas.

In 1997, the Texas Supreme Court held that districts have the right to differentiate between male and female students with regard to hair length. However, more recent court cases outside the state have found these kinds of gender distinctions to be unlawful, and the issue has picked up steam over the past two years.

An August 2020 case brought a national spotlight to Texas when a Black male student sued his school district after being assigned in-school suspension for having a hairstyle that violated school district policy. A preliminary injunction was issued preventing the school district from enforcing the policy against the student.

Wightman believes issues like these aren’t going away any time soon. “The gender and racial issues we’ve seen come up with dress codes recently are only going to continue progressing,” says Wightman. “Districts that don’t take a proactive stance and address policy changes might find themselves vulnerable to legal action.”

Making Changes to Dress Code Policies

Updating a school dress code might seem like a big endeavor, but the process doesn’t have to be unwieldy. Wightman recommends first taking a look at the policies that are currently in place. Districts should review dress codes with an eye for distinctions related to protected characteristics — that is, race, religion, or gender. Dress codes that create different provisions for different types of individuals could be problematic. Challenges to dress codes have often arisen from different interpretations of standards across cultural groups, and districts that have different standards for male and female students have been subject to Title IX complaints by students and parents.

To avoid possible legal challenges, districts should craft a dress code that provides for plenty of gender-neutral options and that applies standards equally across cultural groups. “Districts have had a hard time convincing judges that policies that make distinctions based on gender or race align with their reasons for having a dress code,” Wightman says. Policies that raise legal concerns should be discussed with the district’s attorney, she advises.

To make sure dress code policies meet the needs of the school’s community, districts should solicit input from a broad range of stakeholders, including staff, students, parents, and community members. When possible, people with diverse backgrounds should also be included. Committees that are currently in place, such as campus advisory committees, can serve as a starting point for these kinds of conversations.

Once a new policy is determined, changes should be shared broadly within the district and the community. Staff, students, and parents should all be made aware of the new guidance as well as any consequences that could result from violations. In addition, a policy should be reviewed on a periodic basis to ensure it is up to date and continues to meet the needs of the school community.

Editor's note: This article appeared in the March 2022 issue of Texas Lone Star magazine.

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Leslie Trahan
Content Strategy Manager

Leslie Trahan is the content strategy manager for TASB.