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It’s a happy day for female students at Charter Day School in Leland, North Carolina.
Three years after parents filed a lawsuit against the tuition-free public school for what they claimed was a discriminatory dress code, a federal judge has ruled in their favor.
Charter Day School previously made news for its dress code, which prohibits female students from wearing shorts or pants, and Senior United States District Judge Malcolm Howard has now deemed the school's clothing policy unconstitutional.
Since it discriminates against female students, the policy also violates the Equal Protection Clause, according to Judge Howard's verdict: "The skirt requirement causes the girls to suffer a burden the boys do not, simply because they are female."
Bonnie Peltier, a mother of a Charter Day School student, started the process back in 2016 when she sued the school in conjunction with the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina. Peltier and two other families were seeking to change the uniform policy, which Charter Day School claimed instills "chivalry" and "traditional values" in students.
“I was inspired to push back against the ridiculous notion that girls needed to wear a skirt or dress to be respected and to ‘promote chivalry,'" Peltier told TODAY Style. "I chose to send my child to the school with the best academic record, but that didn’t mean I let her civil rights be checked at the schoolhouse door. Having a choice doesn’t mean giving up your voice, or not speaking out when something is wrong."
In an email to TODAY Style, Secretary to the Board, Charter Day School, Inc. Baker Mitchell said parents devised the school's dress code in late 1999 and early 2000.
"The options for skorts, skirts, or jumpers with leggings, was explicitly addressed, as were the other components of the code. The code was not a unilateral decision by the board or any individual, but rather by the parents who were the school’s community," Mitchell wrote.
He clarified that skirts have never been required, and rather were one of three options for female students: "Skirts have always been optional. Skorts are, in fact, the dominate form of dress for girls today. Skorts are the equivalent to shorts and provide modesty and agility where they may be of concern to a student or parent."
Mitchell also confirmed that exceptions to the uniform policy exist for gym classes, field trips and other activities exist, and all students are instructed to wear shorts or pants on these days.
In his verdict, Howard dismissed the school's rationale behind their uniform policy: "While defendants argue the skirts requirement is based on the traditional values approach of the school as a whole and is in place to instill discipline and keep order, defendants have shown no connection between these stated goals and the requirement that girls wear skirts."
Galen Sherwin, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, told TODAY Style the verdict proved how harmful the school's uniform policy was.
“The court’s ruling rejected the argument that skirts were required in order to foster respect between the sexes, demonstrating how far outside the mainstream CDS’s dress code is," Sherwin said. "It was, in fact, the opposite of how our clients experienced the skirts requirement. They reported being teased by the boys when their underwear showed, and felt the school was sending the message that their opportunity to learn was less important than the boys’ comfort. These embarrassing experiences and harmful messages stick with girls the rest of their lives. I’m proud of our clients for standing up for what is right. It’s thanks to their bravery that all the girls at CDS will have more freedom going forward."
When Peltier heard the verdict, she said she felt an immense sense of relief and hope.
“This was a great victory not only for my daughter and her classmates, but also sends a positive message across the country that girls need to be treated equally to boys,” she said.
And her daughter was pretty excited to learn she could soon wear pants and shorts to school.
"My daughter was ecstatic to hear we won! She immediately got on Facetime with her friends and they all shared the excitement,” Peltier said.
Now that their court battle is over, Peltier and other parents are eager for the school to implement a new dress code soon.
“We will be reaching out to lawyers for CDS to determine how soon the changes to the dress code mandated by the court’s order are expected to go into effect, and will seek further assistance from the court if necessary to ensure that this happens without further delay,” Sherwin said.
Mitchell declined to offer comment on specific timing, but gave the following statement: "A final judgement has not been entered by the court as of this date, and the court has not ordered the school to make any changes. In fact, the judge ruled in favor of CDS on the Title IX sex discrimination claim and in favor of RBA on another claim."
In the meantime, Mitchell said he and colleagues stand by the school's reputation: "Charter Day School is proud of its record of academic achievements past eighteen years. It will continue to place academics and the education of its 2,400 students as a top priority alongside safety and character development."