Idaho Superintendent Says ACLU Warning Against Gender-Specific Dress Codes Has Merit

May 13, 2015

The ACLU of Idaho is warning school districts against graduation dress codes. The ACLU says many Idaho high schools have rules requiring girls to wear dresses or skirts and boys to wear pants to graduation ceremonies. The organization says when schools mandate gender specific clothes, they violate federal laws as well as students’ constitutional rights.

ACLU of Idaho acting director Leo Morales says a letter his organization has sent to all Idaho districts is meant to help schools avoid last minute problems as they prepare for end of year activities.

“If [students] are forced to dress in a certain manner which they believe violates their constitutional rights, they could challenge those schools," Morales says. "Those schools then will be caught in a difficult situation of trying to make changes to their policies.”  

An ACLU press release particularly singles out south Idaho’s Cassia School District.

“…where girls are instructed to wear a ‘white or pastel dress or white or pastel blouse and skirt’ to graduation; boys are instructed to wear pants, but cannot wear sandals, though girls can,” the press release reads.

Cassia superintendent Gaylen Smyer says dress codes at his district’s five high schools were written decades ago and he realizes the world is a different place now.

“Until an issue’s raised sometimes we don’t think about the continued implications of decisions that were made way back when,” Smyer says.

Morales says districts shouldn’t wait until issues are raised.

“It’s important, and it should be good practice for all school districts to review their written or customary practices to ensure they are not violating the law and upholding the constitutional rights of students and teachers,” Morales says.

Smyer says graduations are important ceremonies and it is appropriate for schools to ask students to dress with dignity. But he says the ACLU message has merit.

“So will we revisit that and try to make that less gender specific?” Smyer says. “I would suspect the answer is yes.”

Cassia and the ACLU have been at odds since last October over a Declo High School student who alleges she was discriminated against, in part for not being a member of the LDS Church, which is the majority religion in south-central and southeast Idaho.

Morales says because they are working with Declo High, someone gave the ACLU of Idaho a copy of a handout being sent home with seniors outlining graduation rules. He says that’s what prompted the ACLU’s letter to all districts on gender-specific dress codes.

ACLU of Idaho legal director Richard Eppink had some strong words for Cassia in the organization's press release.

“Cassia County School District, for instance, is a district that’s been trying to convince us for the entire past school year that its people don’t discriminate, and yet here it is, in black and white,” Eppink writes. “It is 2015 here in Idaho, but sometimes you wouldn’t know it.”

Find Adam Cotterell on Twitter @cotterelladam

Copyright 2015 Boise State Public Radio