Dress and grooming: From the CROWN Act to student expression
Students’ attire and grooming have evolved considerably over the years. And how schools enforce their guidelines regarding dress and grooming, communicate these expectations to students and avoid singling out student groups are evolving, too.
The law is clear that dress codes must not be written or enforced in a manner that results in a disproportionate application of the dress code based on a student’s gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, religious or cultural expression, household income, or body type or size.

This July, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law the CROWN Act (Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair), Senate Bill 188, which protects students from discrimination based on hairstyles, including afros, braids and twists. Author Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) said in a news release that “for centuries, black people have had to use expensive, chemically harsh treatments to fit Eurocentric standards for professional hair.” While federal and California law already prohibited discrimination based on religious hairstyles and head coverings, Mitchell said these measures were not enough. She pointed to the example of a young wrestler from New Jersey who was forced by a referee to cut his natural locks before competing on the mat.

Gender bias in dress codes is also a concern to consider when writing and implementing policies. Recent news articles state that dress codes are often more prescriptive and more frequently enforced for female students than male students. For example, articles recount stories of young women being body-shamed for being “too busty” or because their bodies are a “distraction to boys in my class.”1, 2

An additional challenge for school districts in adopting reasonable dress codes is to regulate clothing that causes a substantial disruption without impinging on students’ First Amendment rights. In Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a district cannot discriminate against student expression based merely on the message or sentiment displayed. Courts have applied this principle to student dress as well.

Yet, despite the clear prohibition against discrimination, navigating the district’s ability to prohibit “hate speech,” including clothing with derogatory or demeaning messages, is not always easy. In Harper v. Poway Unified School District, the 9th Circuit Court ruled that a school could prohibit a student from wearing a T-shirt with a religious viewpoint against homosexuality, but the decision was vacated by the U.S. Supreme Court on appeal. It is recommended that districts consult legal counsel if they have questions about the appropriate enforcement of the dress code based on student expression.

Dress and grooming
CSBA updated its sample board policy and administrative regulation 5132 – Dress and Grooming in May to enhance gender and viewpoint neutrality. The association also plans to reissue the regulation in October to reflect the provisions of SB 188.

“As governing boards develop policy on this topic, they should consult with teachers, students, parents/guardians and their communities,” said Alexandra Zucco, CSBA policy manual consultant. “It is also important to regularly review dress codes to keep up with changing norms and to ensure fairness.”

To minimize violations, dress codes must be clearly communicated to students and their parents/guardians. The rules can be outlined in student handbooks, posted in school offices or classrooms, and made available on the district’s or school’s website.

School administrators and other staff should also be knowledgeable about the dress code and appropriate enforcement. Through policy, governing boards may set expectations that enforcement of the dress code not be addressed during instructional time or in front of other students, not result in a student being sent home or given alternate clothing to wear, and does not send a message that what students wear is more important than what they learn.

  1. Lakritz, T. (2019, February 14). 18 times students and parents said school dress codes went too far. Insider. www.insider.com/school-dress-code-rules-controversy-2018-8
  2. Jones, S. (2018, August 31). Do school dress codes discriminate against girls? Education Week.