NC school said girls are ‘fragile’ and must wear skirts. Court slams the requirement

Seth Perlman/AP
·4 min read

When parents protested a North Carolina charter school’s skirt requirement for female students, the school said it was based on “traditional values” — including how girls are “‘fragile vessels’ deserving of ‘gentle’ treatment by boys,” according to a federal appeals court.

Now the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, located in Richmond, Virginia, has slammed Charter Day School’s skirt requirement in a 10-6 ruling deciding it was unconstitutional on June 14.

The case was brought by three students, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, who challenged their school’s skirt rule by arguing it was rooted in gender stereotypes and went against their rights under the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.

As a result, the court’s majority agreed, according to the decision.

“By implementing the skirts requirement based on blatant gender stereotypes about the ‘proper place’ for girls and women in society, CDS has acted in clear violation of the Equal Protection Clause,” Senior Circuit Judge Barbara Milano Keenan wrote.

Meanwhile, the Charter Day School, which is based in Brunswick County and runs four public charter schools in the state, defended the skirt requirement by arguing the institution was not a state actor and should not be bound by the Equal Protection Clause, according to the ruling.

Aaron Streett, the attorney representing the school, told McClatchy News in a statement that “we respectfully disagree with the majority’s opinion.”

He said it “contradicts Supreme Court precedent on state action, splits with every other circuit to consider the issue, and limits the ability of parents to choose the best education for their children.”

The students also argued that the skirt requirement violated Title IX, a federal law that prevents sex-based discrimination, but the court is sending that complaint back for “further proceedings,” according to the decision.

Origins of the case

The founder of Charter Day School, Baker A. Mitchell Jr., put its dress code in place to “‘instill discipline and keep order’ among students,” according to background on the case included in the court’s decision.

If girls didn’t follow the skirt rule, they could face disciplinary action such as being removed and prevented from attending class, according to the court.

In 2015, Bonnie Peltier, the mother of a girl in kindergarten, complained to Mitchell about the skirts policy, to which the court said he responded by 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.”

Afterward, two other parents of students at the school joined Peltier in filing a federal suit against Charter Day School in the Eastern District of North Carolina before it rose to the U.S. Courts of Appeals.

In August 2021, a 2-1 appellate panel ruled to uphold the skirt rule before it was ultimately reversed in the latest decision, The Carolina Journal reported.

Keenan wrote that Charter Day School’s “narrow focus on girls’ ability to achieve academic success despite the skirts requirement fails to address girls’ psychological well-being, as well as the social development of both boys and girls.”

The three students who challenged the requirement, including two who were in fourth and eighth grade at the time of the case’s filing, said the rule “signaled that school administrators valued their education less than that of boys,” the ACLU said in a news release.

They felt that “wearing skirts limited their movement and made them uncomfortable in various weather conditions and other school situations like playing freely at recess or sitting on the floor,” according to the ACLU.

As a result of the court’s ruling, Peltier said in a statement that “in 2022, girls shouldn’t have to decide between wearing something that makes them uncomfortable or missing classroom instruction time.”

The dissent’s opinion

In the dissenting opinion, the judges said the case was not about whether they agree with the skirt requirement. Instead, it was a matter of whether Charter Day School is a state actor.

“Prior to today, neither the Supreme Court nor any federal appellate court had concluded that a publicly funded private or charter school is a state actor,” Circuit Judge Marvin Quattlebaum wrote. “The majority, however, breaks that new ground.”

“In my view, in deciding that a private operator of a North Carolina charter school is a state actor, the majority misconstrues and ignores guidance from the Supreme Court and all of our sister circuits that have addressed either the same or very similar issues.”

Streett told McClatchy News that Charter Day School is assessing how to move forward with the court’s ruling in regard to “challenging this erroneous ruling.”

The school “will continue to provide an excellent education to its students,” he added.

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