Dress Codes Under Scrutiny Create Litigation Risk For Nonprofits

Written exclusively for My Community Workplace for Not-For-Profits Organizations

A North Carolina judge ruled in favor of a group of parents and guardians who filed a lawsuit against their children's charter school, alleging that the school's dress code constituted illegal sex discrimination.

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs stated that the school's dress code requires girls to wear skirts or face suspension and/or expulsion. The plaintiffs allege the rule results in girls having to avoid any recess activity that might expose their undergarments, like climbing or sports games; compels girls to continually think about how their legs are situated, thus distracting them from classwork; and makes it difficult for the girls to stay warm during winter months.

The judge in the case found sufficient evidence that the school's dress code treats females at the school differently than the males. He ruled that despite operating separately from traditional public schools in many aspects, the charter school in this case did act under the auspices of state law when they chose to create this skirts-only rule with significant punishment for violations.

The judge further stated that despite the board's argument that changing the dress code would alter the broader educational goal that has found historical success at the school, he did not see "any facts showing specifically how the skirts requirement furthers this success." Emery P. Dalesio "US judge: School's rule for girls to wear skirts breaks law" www.thecoastlandtimes.com (Apr. 04, 2019).

Commentary and Checklist

School dress and appearance codes are under increasing scrutiny for gender- and racially-based inequities. Nonprofit schools and other nonprofits that work with children would do well to reconsider all aspects of their dress and appearance codes to avoid litigation.

Dress codes meant to shame students are also under scrutiny.  For example, in 2014, in Orange Park, Florida, a high school student was forced to wear a "shame suit" - a shirt and pants with the words "dress code violation" printed on it. Adding to her humiliation was the fact that images of her in the "shame suit" went viral.

Nonprofits can consider the following dress code suggestions to reduce discrimination risk:

  • Create a written appearance policy with the consultation of your legal counsel.
  • Make certain you base your dress and appearance policies on objective criteria. Avoid gender- or race-based references.
  • Include an accommodation exception provision for individuals with regard to religion or disability issues.
  • Distribute the policy to all students, parents, employees, administrators, and teachers.
  • Enforce the policy consistently, but allow those individuals who violate the policy an opportunity to correct the issue without punishment or shaming. Most violations are honest mistakes.
  • To be effective, organizational leaders must set the example for hygiene and appearance.
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