Friday, June 17, 2022
Fourth Circuit En Banc Holds Charter School's Dress Code of Skirts for Girls is Gender Discrimination under Equal Protection and Maybe Title IX
Peltier v. Charter Day School, No. 20-1001 (4th Cir. June 14, 2022)
Charter Day School (CDS),1 a public charter school in North Carolina, requires female students to wear skirts to school based on the view that girls are “fragile vessels” deserving of “gentle” treatment by boys (the skirts requirement). The plaintiffs argue that this sex-based classification grounded on gender stereotypes violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and subjects them to discrimination and denial of the full benefits of their education in violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. § 1681 et seq. (Title IX).
In response, despite CDS’ status as a public school under North Carolina law, CDS and its management company disavow accountability under the Equal Protection Clause by maintaining that they are not state actors. These entities also assert that Title IX, the federal statute designed to root out gender discrimination in schools, categorially does not apply to dress codes.
Upon our review, we affirm the district court’s entry of summary judgment for the plaintiffs on their Equal Protection claim against CDS, and the court’s judgment in favor of the management company on that claim. We also vacate the court’s summary judgment award in favor of all defendants on the plaintiffs’ Title IX claim and remand for further proceedings on that claim.***
As part of this educational philosophy [traditional education as it was 50 years ago], CDS has implemented a dress code to “instill discipline and keep order” among students. Among other requirements, all students must wear a unisex polo shirt and closed-toe shoes; “[e]xcessive or radical haircuts and colors” are prohibited; and boys are forbidden from wearing jewelry. Female students are required to wear a “skirt,” “jumper,” or “skort.” In contrast, boys must wear shorts or pants. All students are required to comply with the dress code unless they have physical education class, when they wear unisex physical education uniforms, or an exception is made for a field trip or other special event. A student’s failure to comply with the dress code requirements may result in disciplinary action, including notification of the student’s parent, removal from class to comply with the dress code, or expulsion, though no student has been expelled for violating the dress code.
In 2015, plaintiff Bonnie Peltier, the mother of a female kindergarten student at CDS, informed Mitchell that she objected to the skirts requirement. Mitchell responded to Peltier in support of the policy, stating: "The Trustees, parents, and other community supporters were determined to preserve chivalry and respect among young women and men in this school of choice. For example, young men were to hold the door open for the young ladies and to carry an umbrella, should it be needed. Ma’am and sir were to be the preferred forms of address." There was felt to be a need to restore, and then preserve, traditional regard for peers. Mitchell later elaborated that chivalry is “a code of conduct where women are treated, they’re regarded as a fragile vessel that men are supposed to take care of and honor.” Mitchell further explained that, in implementing the skirts requirement, CDS sought to “treat [girls] courteously and more gently than boys.”
In support of their summary judgment motion, the plaintiffs submitted evidence of the tangible and intangible harms they suffer based on the skirts requirement. One plaintiff testified that the skirts requirement conveys the school’s view that girls “simply weren’t worth as much as boys,” and that “girls are not in fact equal to boys.” Another plaintiff stated that the skirts requirement “sends the message that girls should be less active than boys and that they are more delicate than boys,” with the result that boys “feel empowered” and “in a position of power over girls.”
The plaintiffs also described the impact of the skirts requirement on their ability to participate in school activities. On one occasion, when a first-grade female student wore shorts to school due to a misunderstanding of the dress code, she was removed from class and was required to spend the day in the school’s office. The plaintiffs also explained that they avoid numerous physical activities, including climbing, using the swings, and playing soccer, except for days on which they are permitted to wear their unisex physical education uniforms. The plaintiffs further testified that they cannot participate comfortably in school emergency drills that require students to crawl and kneel on the floor, fearing that boys will tease them or look up their skirts. Both parties presented evidence from expert witnesses regarding the effects that the skirts requirement and gender stereotypes have on female students.
Deep in the thicket of a new en banc decision from 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on the constitutionality of a charter school’s “skirts-only” dress code for girls, there’s a nuanced legal debate about whether public charter schools can be sued under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
In a 10-6 decision in Peltier v. Charter Day School Inc, the 4th Circuit majority determined that under North Carolina’s statutory framework for public charter schools, the schools are state actors — and therefore bound by the Equal Protection Clause — when it comes to setting and enforcing educational policies. The judges in the majority found that Charter Day School’s dress code, which requires girls to wear skirts, skorts or dresses, is unconstitutional because it serves no educational purpose but was adopted, according to statements from school officials, to telegraph the message that girls are “fragile vessels” who require boys' protection, rather than equal treatment.
That message “blatantly perpetuates harmful gender stereotypes ... with potentially devastating consequences for young girls,” wrote Judge Barbara Keenan for the majority. “If CDS wishes to continue engaging in this discriminatory practice, CDS must do so as a private school without the sanction of the state or this court.”
But six 4th Circuit judges said it's not at all clear that the Charter Day School is a state actor. In particular, wrote Judge Marvin Quattlebaum in the court's primary dissent, there's a strong argument that North Carolina did not compel Charter Day to adopt its dress code, so the policy cannot be considered a state action