Student Dress Codes (page 2)

— Educational Resource Information Center (U.S. Department of Education)
Updated on Feb 18, 2011

What Legal Issues Are Involved?

To date, most legal challenges to dress-code policies have been based on either (1) claims that the school has infringed on the student's First Amendment right to free expression or (2) claims under the Fourteenth Amendment that the school has violated the student's liberty to control his or her personal appearance (Paliokos and others 1996).

First Amendment Claims. The clash between students' rights of free expression and the responsibility of public-school authorities to provide a safe learning environment is the central issue in the debate over dress-code policy.

In developing a ban on gang-like attire, whether through implementing a dress-code or a school-uniform policy, administrators should ask: (1) Is there a direct link between the targeted attire and disruption of the school environment? and (2) Is the prohibition specific enough to target the threatening attire without infringing on students' rights? (Lane and others 1994).

"Any dress restriction that infringes on a student's First Amendment rights must be justified by a showing that the student's attire materially disrupts school operations, infringes on the rights of others at the school, or otherwise interferes with any basic educational mission of the school" (Grantham 1994).

To defend its action if challenged in court, a state must carefully define its interest when authorizing school districts to implement mandatory uniform policies. Policy-makers must be able to document that a problem exists (Paliokos and others).

Liberty Claims. Most challenges claiming a violation of the liberty interest have dealt with restrictions on hair length. Courts have been evenly split on whether a liberty interest exists. "Most courts that uphold the restrictions give the policy a presumption of constitutionality and place the burden on the defendant to show it is not rationally related to a legitimate school interest.... Those courts that strike down such regulations have found that schools impose unnecessary norms on students" (Paliokos and others).

What Are Some Guidelines for Implementing Policies?

Lane and others offer the following advice to policy-makers: Before implementing a dress-code or school-uniform policy, be able to justify the action by demonstrating the link between a kind of dress and disruptive behavior; consult with a school attorney; and make sure the policy is enforceable and does not discriminate against racial/ethnic minorities.

In regard to uniforms, Paliokos and others recommend that policy-makers address three key questions: Are the requirements legally defensible? Do they actually restore order? Are less restrictive dress codes a better alternative? For example, policy-makers can consider five alternatives ranging from least to most restrictive:

1. Do not institute a dress code.

2. Institute a dress code that outlines general goals, and let principals and local school officials formulate and implement policy at the grass-roots level.

3. Institute an itemized dress code that will be applied throughout the district.

4. Authorize a voluntary uniform policy.

5. Authorize a mandatory uniform policy with or without a clearly defined opt-out provision.

Then policy-makers should decide whether to let schools choose their own uniforms and whether to offer financial help to low-income families (Paliokos and others).

Whichever policy is chosen, successful implementation depends on developing positive perceptions among students and parents, making uniforms available and inexpensive, implementing dress-code/uniform policies in con- junction with other educational change strategies, allowing for some diversity in uniform components, involving parents and students in choice of uniforms and formulation of policy, recognizing cultural influences, and enforcing the rules evenly and fairly.

Superintendent Cohn credits his district's success to a stable school board, supportive parents and community, resources to defend the policy, capable site administrators, and community philanthropic resources.


"California Leads Nation in Public School Uniform Use." California School News (March 31, 1997): 4.

Caruso, Peter. "Individuality vs. Conformity: The Issue Behind School Uniforms." NASSP Bulletin 8, 581 (September 1996): 83-88. EJ532 294.

Cohn, Carl A. "Mandatory School Uniforms." The School Administrator 53, 2 (February 1996): 22-25. EJ519 738. Cohn, Carl A., and Loren Siegal. "Should Students Wear Uniforms?" Learning 25, 2 (September/October 1996): 38-39.

Grantham, Kimberly. "Restricting Student Dress in Public Schools." School Law Bulletin 25, 1 (Winter 1994): 1-10. EJ483 331.

Kuhn, Mary Julia. "Student Dress Codes in the Public Schools: Multiple Perspectives in the Courts and Schools on the Same Issues." Journal of Law and Education 25, 1 (Winter 1996): 83-106. EJ 527 561.

Lane, Kenneth E.; Stanley L. Schwartz; Michael D. Richardson; and Dennis W. VanBerum. "You Aren't What You Wear." The American School Board Journal 181, 3 (March 1994): 64-65. EJ481 325.

Loesch, Paul C. "A School Uniform Program That Works." Principal 74, 4 (March 1995): 28, 30. EJ502 869.

Murray, Richard K. "The Impact of School Uniforms on School Climate." NASSP Bulletin 81,593 (December 1997):106-12.

Paliokas, Kathleen L.; Mary Hatwood Futrell; and Ray C. Rist. "Trying Uniforms On for Size." American School Board Journal 183, 5 (May 1996): 32-35. EJ524 358.

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