LEGAL GUIDE
Written by Avvo Staff | Sep 10, 2015

Public school dress codes

School dress codes are a common way schools try to keep students safe and limit disruptions. But dress codes can also cause controversy when students and parents feel they limit students’ ability to express themselves.

What are dress codes?

Dress codes are rules on what students can wear to school and school functions.

The specific details vary by school. Some dress codes focus on what’s not allowed, which may include limiting accessories like scarves, bandannas, or jewelry.

Others require a uniform style of dress, like certain colors of shirts and pants, or skirts of a certain length. Only a few public schools require actual uniforms.

Lastly, dress codes can also include regulations on hairstyles and length.

Can schools create and enforce dress codes?

The US Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that schools are allowed to limit student expression that could be legitimately disruptive. That expression can include choice of clothing.

Most states also have their own laws allowing schools to create dress codes. Specifics on what schools can do varies by state. But in general, the codes can’t be arbitrary, and can only ban clothes that could legitimately affect the school’s safe learning environment.

How are school dress codes affected by the First Amendment?

Clothing can be considered a kind of speech, so one argument against dress codes is that they infringe on students’ First Amendment rights.

But the right of free speech is not absolute. For example, defamatory or threatening speech is not protected. Similarly, courts have given schools the right to limit speech, including clothing choices that could affect the learning environment.

Some examples of what schools may regulate include:

  • Gang-related colors, brands, or logos
  • Shirt, pant, and skirt colors, or lengths
  • Clothing with sexually explicit or pro-drug messages

However, schools can’t ban clothes simply because teachers or administrators disapprove of them.

Their policies also can’t be discriminatory. For example, if a school allows t-shirts supporting one side of a debate, it can’t ban t-shirts supporting the other side.

How are school dress codes affected by freedom of religion?

In most cases, schools can’t stop students from expressing their religious beliefs, e.g.:

  • Wearing a head scarf or yarmulke
  • Wearing a cross necklace
  • Carrying a rosary
  • Wearing certain hair styles (like the Orthodox Jewish male’s payot)

Both state laws and the US Constitution generally protect students’ rights to wear religious items in school.

What are the limits on dress codes and enforcement?

Sometimes school dress codes overstep what the law allows. At other times, a teacher or administrator may misinterpret the rules and wrongly punish a student.

You or your student can object if this happens. Start with your school’s complaint procedure (which probably involves submitting a written complaint).

If the school doesn’t take you seriously, a lawyer experienced in education law can help you understand your options, including whether going to court may be a good idea.

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