Graduation season is in full swing, and many students are preparing to don their caps and gowns and celebrate their academic achievements with their friends and families.
But for too many students here in Arkansas and across the country, formal events at school are accompanied by discriminatory and gender-specific dress codes.
Such dress codes may seem harmless, but they can serve to reinforce stereotypical norms that are harmful to all students, especially those who are transgender or gender nonconforming. Throughout the school year, we know that bullying and discrimination against transgender students remain commonplace, with 75 percent of transgender youth reporting that they feel unsafe at school.
Public school students in Arkansas have a right to learn in an environment that is free from gender discrimination, sex stereotyping, bullying or harassment – and the law is on their side.
Here are three things to know about state and federal legal protections against gender discrimination at public schools:
  • Dress Codes Cannot Be Explicitly Discriminatory: Schools can specify “formal attire,” but they cannot require that girls, and only girls, wear dresses or that boys, and only boys, wear suits. A gender-specific dress code that requires female students to dress one way and male students another constitutes impermissible gender discrimination. Under federal laws protecting against discrimination in education, Title IX and the Constitution’s equal protection guarantee, schools cannot base either a dress code or its enforcement on sex stereotypes — generalizations about what types of clothing or appearance are appropriate for a boy or a girl. 
  • Federal and State Law Protects Students from Bullying Based on Their Gender: Federal law protects public school students from discrimination or harassment based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, or disability. Arkansas law goes further, and protects students from bullying, which is defined as being “reasonably free from substantial intimidation, harassment, or harm or threat of harm by another student.” The law specifically protects students from bullying based on race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, socioeconomic status, academic status, disability, gender, gender identity, physical appearance, health condition, sexual orientation and other attributes. District employees witnessing or knowing about bullying must report it to the principal. Every school principal (or designee) must promptly investigate the report and make a record of the investigation and any action taken. Retaliation against a reporting person is against the law.
  • Stigmatizing Students Because of Their Gender or Gender Identity is Against the Law. All students, whether transgender or cisgender, must be allowed to wear clothing consistent with their gender identity and expression. Again, this is because the clothing we wear is part of the way we express our identity and because schools can’t stereotype students’ appearance or behavior based on their gender or sex assigned at birth. In addition, actions by a district that lead to stigmatizing a particular student are not permissible under the law. For example, requiring a transgender student to use a separate or private restroom can invite or create problems for the student that may lead to further outing and stigmatization of that student by students or other adults. 
We also strongly recommend that schools review and adopt the policies and practices set forth by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network’s policy guide for schools.
No student should be stigmatized or harassed because of who they are – or forced to conform to stereotypes based on their sex. Schools have an obligation to provide a safe and welcoming learning environment that prepares all students to succeed.