The Supreme Court rejected an appeal from a publicly funded North Carolina charter school that wanted to force girls to wear skirts to school because they are “fragile vessels” who need to be handled “more gently than boys.” By rejecting Charter Day School’s appeal, the highest court agreed that the school’s rules violated the girls’ constitutional civil rights.
“Today’s announcement is a victory for the thousands of students who attend public charter schools in North Carolina and for the 3.6 million students like them nationwide,” Ria Tabacco Mar, Director of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, said in a statement. The case was brought by the ACLU and ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation.
“Girls at public charter schools have the same constitutional rights as their peers at other public schools – including the freedom to wear pants,” Tabacco Mar added. “We will continue to fight for all girls to learn in safe and equal schools.”
This battle was a long time coming: The school was founded in 1999, which was the same year as the Columbine High School shooting. Why did I bring up that horrific bit of trivia? Because the founder, Baker Michael, invoked the shooting in an email to a parent, sent in 2015, who was asking for clarification as to why the girls couldn’t wear pants—even during physical education and recess.
“As you may recall, the tumult of the 1990’s was capped off by the Columbine shootings April 20, 1999 in which two students killed thirteen classmates and injured twenty-four others – fourteen of whom were female,” the letter read. The Trustees, parents, and other community supporters were determined to preserve chivalry and respect among young women and men in this school of choice.”
The lawsuit states that Mitchell also later elaborated that the school’s idea of 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.”
After the email that needlessly invoked Columbine, parents eventually filed suit in 2016. At that time, the girls in question were in kindergarten, fourth and eighth grades. Keely Burks, one of the students challenging the skirts-only rule, said they gathered more than 100 signatures on a petition to get the rule changed. “It was taken from us by a teacher and we never got it back,” Burks wrote, adding that then they turned to the ACLU for help. (The school is now called Classical Charter Schools of Leland, per the ACLU release.)
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit wrote that Charter Day School’s dress code “blatantly perpetuates harmful gender stereotypes” in its opinion from June 2022. “Nothing in the Equal Protection Clause prevents public schools from teaching universal values of respect and kindness, but those values are never advanced by the discriminatory treatment of girls in a public school,” the court said.
In January, The Supreme Court previously asked the Biden Administration to weigh in. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar’s brief agreed that the skirts-only dress code infringed on the girls’ civil rights at school. “Eliminating unconstitutional discrimination – whether based on sex, race, religion, or other grounds – ensures that all students have the opportunity to benefit from the ‘diverse pedagogical approaches’ charter schools can offer,” the brief, filed in May, read.
And now girls at this North Carolina publicly-funded charter school have the right to wear pants to school if they so choose. Thanks (barely) to the Supreme Court for making one (1) more good decision.