Stricter Rules on Student Dress, Decorum Revive Familiar Civil-Liberties Questions

October 18, 1989 13 min read

By Lisa Jennings

Hanna Murgatroyd, an El Paso, Tex., beautician, got a phone call from her son’s school last month, warning that he would be suspended if he did not cut his hair. She told the assistant principal she would take care of it when she got home from work.

But that evening, Ms. Murgatroyd discovered that her son Ted had already been given his haircut--by a teacher--and that several of his less fortunate classmates had been suspended for violating the school’s strict new dress code.

It was then, she recalls, that her son’s fashionable but unapproved hairstyle became, for her, a matter of civil rights.

“They had no right to cut it,” says the beautician, who has filed suit with the parents of a suspended student, seeking to outlaw such codes. “It was like a police state.”

Ms. Murgatroyd’s legal action may still be relatively rare, civil-liberties groups say, but her sentiments are not.

Across the nation, as more and more schools try to turn back the dress-and-decorum clock in search of a safer, more orderly classroom environment, the question of how such policies can be implemented fairly is surfacing with frequency.

Parents in the suburban-Atlanta district of Henry County, Ga., for example, have formed a coalition to overturn that system’s dress code--and to oust the school board that devised it.

Dress codes have also stirred passions in districts in and around Baltimore, Detroit, Houston, and Los Angeles.

“Everyone thought this issue had been litigated and resolved,” said Colleen O’Connor, public-education director for the American Civil Liberties Union. “But now we are seeing a number of these kinds of cases, very reminiscent of the 1960’s.”

The move toward stricter dress policies has been fueled, she and other experts say, by a desire to improve school discipline and create a more uniform atmosphere that promotes learning.

Some codes, such as those in Los Angeles, prohibit the wearing of certain colors or articles of clothing associated with local gang activity. In Baltimore and Detroit, the codes have been expressly designed to eliminate expensive items of dress, such as gold chains and fur coats, that might lead to increased instances of theft.

The ACLU’s Ms. O’Connor maintains, in fact, that the trend may have less to do with schools’ intentionally limiting personal expression than with their desire to make the school environment a less violent and unpredictable place.

“It’s really a desperate reaction on the part of school officials frustrated with the lack of solutions to their problems,” she says.

Others, however, see in the classification of certain styles of dress as “disruptive” not only the potential for discrimination, but also the return to a less tolerant, more authoritarian time.

“It’s ludicrous,” says Dub Wilkinson, a Houston office-machine shop owner facing criminal charges for keeping his sons out of school while a suit over their suspension for shoulder-length hair remains unsettled. “School boards should not be able to mold our children into their image.”

“It’s all coming back, this preoccupation with conformity,” agrees Leanne Katz, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, based in New York. “I thought I’d lived through all this already.”

“We’re dealing with matters of civil rights here,” Ms. Katz insists, “and unless it disrupts the educational process, no person in authority has the right to enforce a code of dress.”

Legal Precedents Mixed

Suits challenging school dress codes have been litigated at both the state and federal levels, but there is no clear legal consensus on the matter.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s views on the constitutionality of dress codes in public schools remain undetermined. Decisions in the federal circuit courts have been split, with the First, Second, Fourth, Seventh, and Eighth circuits upholding student objections, and the Third, Fifth, Sixth, Ninth, 10th, and 11th ruling in favor of school systems.

Ivan B. Gluckman, legal counsel for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, notes that there was a rash of such lawsuits in the 1970’s, and that, at the time, courts tended to support schools “where there was a legitimate educational rationale” behind the code in question.

Generally, the issue of dress codes was distinguished from the issue of hair length then, he adds, with hair being considered something that was part of the student’s life whether in or out of school.

“A student could always wear whatever he or she wanted after school, but he could not change his hair length,” Mr. Gluckman explains.

“Many courts were not convinced of the educational rationale behind rules on hair length,” he says, “and sex discrimination was definitely a factor.”

The most recent case on the issue was decided in 1984, Mr. Gluckman notes, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit upheld a high school’s right to set policy prohibiting certain types of facial hair for athletes on the school’s football and basketball teams.

Schools should, when adopting such policies, Mr. Gluckman recommends, “make sure they have a good educational rationale,” and seek parental approval. He also suggests that the policy be established clearly in writing, and that any implementation be limited to the educational goal established.

“What you don’t want to do is present some situation where an administrator just doesn’t like a certain hair length, or earrings, for some esthetic reason--that is just not supportable,” he warns.

Gwendolyn Gregory, counsel for the National School Boards Association, notes that most who oppose dress codes attack them with a “general, non-legal rationale that this is just not a school district’s business.”

She adds, however, that “there is just not a lot of legal language out there about it.”

Though the NSBA does not offer national guidelines on the issue, she says, it would recommend that local affiliates develop policies that reflect local values.

The Texas School Boards Association, for example, recommends generally that codes seek to maintain general neatness, health, and safety, according to its spokesman, Barbara Williams. Although the organization does not specifically address hair length in its guidelines, she says, it does recommend that offensive clothing or T-shirts with logos that promote smoking, drinking, or drug use be banned.

Discriminatory Impact?

In El Paso, the Murgatroyd lawsuit has already prompted district officials to change their policy, according to the lawyer for the plaintiffs, Arvel R. Ponton. But the parents, he says, would like to prevent the district from adopting similar “discriminatory” policies in the future.

Ms. Murgatroyd explains that she felt her son’s unsolicited haircut was an attempt by school officials to “persecute” him for bad behavior.

“He’s not a straight-A student, he’s bad,” she admits. “But that doesn’t have anything to do with his hair length.”

The boy’s hair was already short, she points out, except for a “rat tail” at the nape of his neck that fell below his collar, a popular teenage hairstyle.

The ACLU is assisting Ms. Murgatroyd and the other parent in their suit, which charges that their sons were denied equal protection and due process guaranteed under state laws.

Because of the pending litigation, the district’s superintendent, William Knapp, would not comment on the case last week.

The Wilkinson case in Houston, also filed in state court, throws the spotlight on another potential bias in dress codes: sexual distinctions.

In it, two teenage boys, students until last November at Northbrook High School in Spring Branch, Tex., a Houston suburb, were suspended because they broke the dress code’s prohibition against boys’ wearing hair below the collar.

The Wilkinson boys, Brian, 17, and Travis, 15, are both excellent students with no previous disciplinary problems whose long hair falls between their shoulder blades.

School officials told Dub Wilkinson, their father, that the boys’ hair was “disruptive,” he says, and posed a “health and hygiene,” as well as a disciplinary, problem.

“I asked them why boys with long hair, and not girls--who tend to have much longer and fuller hair--were a problem,” Mr. Wilkinson responds. “They just said, ‘Because that’s the rule.”’

District officials have agreed to allow the boys to attend school, but have insisted that they stay in an in-school detention program until they cut their hair. But the boys have refused, according to their father, to be cast out “like criminals or second-class citizens.”

“No school official ever sat down for two minutes to talk with my boys and find out what kind of men they are,” Mr. Wilkinson argues. The boys have been keeping up with their studies at home, he says.

The first hearings in the case are scheduled for February. Meanwhile, the district has filed criminal charges against Dub Wilkinson for allowing his sons to stay out of school in violation of the state’s compulsory-attendance laws.

“We have our policy reviewed annually by parents and teachers,” a district spokesman said last week. “The consensus is that our dress code is appropriate.”

A pretrial hearing is scheduled for later this month on Dub Wilkinson’s charges. If found guilty, he may face thousands of dollars in fines.

“They just have a rule they want to enforce, and if they can’t punish the boys, they’ll punish me,” he maintains.

The Wilkinsons’ attorney, Darrell K. McAlexander, calls the district’s action “chicken,” and says the case has boiled down to “a basic suppression of 1st- and 14th-amendment rights.”

“This whole issue scares me to death,” he adds.

Parents Protest in Atlanta

As the dress-code controversy near Atlanta demonstrates, however, though some parents share those sentiments, not all are opposed to restrictions.

The Concerned Parents of Henry County, an ad hoc group formed to protest that district’s dress code, has been collecting signatures on a petition demanding a recall of the county’s school board. But at a board meeting last month, when Concerned Parents’ president, Paul Whitten, presented his petition with about 3,200 signatures, he was met with an alternate petition supporting of the code--and signed by about 1,000 parents.

“People are calling us rebels and heathens, but we’re not,” says Connie J. Lantz, a member of Concerned Parents. “I just want the administration to explain to me how something like hair length could be detrimental to the learning process.”

The Henry County policy, in addition to restrictions on hair length, bans shorts, tight or immodest clothing, slit skirts, boys’ shirttails worn out of pants, earrings for boys, Spandex clothing, and undergarments worn outside of clothes.

According to Preston Malcom, director of management services for the district, a high of 37 students were ordered, at one point during the first month of school, to serve five days of in-school suspension because of dress-code violations.

But the two ACLU lawyers advising the parents’ group say they are attempting to verify reports that as many as 88 students were suspended. Some students were forced to agree to haircuts on the spot, claims Michael Hauptman, one of the lawyers.

He adds that the ACLU is “poised” to file suit in state court, charging that the policy violates civil rights and discriminates against male students.

According to Mr. Malcom, the district has had a dress code for more than a decade, but it was not previously as strict. The stronger version was adopted, he says, simply because “the board feels it provides the educational environment that is more condusive to learning.”

The code was never intended, he argues, to “impose any kind of values or beliefs” on the 5,000 students affected, and the board at this point has no plans to modify it.

‘98 Percent Support’

Many school officials insist that more parents support than oppose dress codes, because they believe such policies promote better discipline.

Kenneth Abbott, the new principal of Walker County High School, in Jasper, Ala., says strict dress policies are common in Alabama. The school board in Jasper approved a stricter code there this summer.

“We are simply trying to instill pride in our students and create a more disciplined atmosphere, and I think it works,” Mr. Abbott says.

Twenty-seven Walker County students were suspended last month because they did not comply with the new dress code. A few parents protested, the principal says, but “98 percent of the community supports the policy.”

Parents have also been supportive in Baltimore and Detroit, where districtwide dress codes have been linked with efforts to bolster school security.

The Baltimore school board has barred students from wearing, among other items, expensive jewelry and clothing that has been associated with the “drug culture.”

Dick Holden, a spokesman for the district, says the policy was adopted last January and implemented last month in all district middle and high schools. It bans leather, fur, or animal-skin clothes; sweat pants and jogging suits; torn clothing; visible gold or jewelry with precious stones; underwear worn as outerwear; slippers or flip flops; hats; hair rollers; bedtime apparel; shorts, halter tops, and muscle shirts; and Spandex.

In addition, Mr. Holden notes, each school may develop its own rules to add to the district’s exclusionary guidelines.

Mr. Holden argues that eliminating expensive clothing and jewelry will cut down on the number of assaults and thefts in schools, as well as drug-related crimes.

He concedes, however, that “there are some pockets of resistance” within the district--most typically in schools that have little trouble with crime.

Some parents have complained, he says, about the policy’s “not being uniformally applied,” but so far feedback has been mostly supportive.

In Detroit, where individual schools are allowed to develop their own policies, Mumford High School has a strict code banning jewelry, fur coats, and any type of athletic wear. The Mumford policy was developed two years ago by an advisory council representing school staff members and parents.

According to Principal Robin E. Oden, the policy not only seeks to cut down on theft and what he calls “the stigma associated” with wearing expensive fashions often linked with drug use, but also to set a “tone.”

“We want to teach students that school is like work,” he says. “You don’t go to a job wearing a jogging suit, so we don’t want them wearing jogging suits to school either.”

Larry Higgins, principal of Washington Preparatory High School in Los Angeles, describes parents in his district as being “ecstatic” about his school’s strict dress code.

Gang Styles Banned in L.A.

Developed in 1981, when George McKenna was principal of the school, the code is similar to that of Henry County, Ga. But it adds the provision that students not dress in any style commonly used by gang members.

That means boys may not wear earrings, baggy pants lowered to the hips, hair nets, curlers, or other items associated with gang styles.

Parents sign a contract pledging to support the school’s efforts to maintain proper behavior, attendance, and dress. With an inner-city enrollment that is 88 percent black and 12 percent Hispanic, Mr. Higgins has found, parents support the concept wholeheartedly. “They are looking for answers, too,” he says.

“We’re telling parents and students that, if you step on this campus, we expect certain things of you--and that starts with the way you dress,” says the principal. “This is a place of business.”

He says he feels the dress code helps eliminate problems: “If you don’t look like a gang member, you will avoid 80 to 90 percent of the problems associated with being a gang member.”

“I wish every school in the world had a dress code like this,” says the principal, who adds that he also wishes every school could adopt a dress code for teachers. So far, he says, that concept has not caught on with his staff.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 18, 1989 edition of Education Week as Stricter Rules on Student Dress, Decorum Revive Familiar Civil-Liberties Questions