School Dress Codes Still Disproportionately Affect Black and Gender Non-Conforming Girls

Supermajority Education Fund

June 10, 2020

Two high school seniors were recently barred from their graduations due to school dress codes, shining light on how these codes disproportionately punish Black girls.

Earlier this month, Kieana Hooper told NBC News that the principal of Gladewater High School in Texas told her daughter — Kienjanae, a student at the school — that she would not be able to receive her diploma or participate in graduation unless she covered her braids. In a letter to the family’s lawyer, school officials said they did not object to Kienjanae’s braids, but the fact that her hair was an unnatural color.

“You’re basing a graduation and diploma on hair,” Hooper’s mother told NBC News. “Which is totally ridiculous with what’s going on in this world.”

Fordham University School of Law professor Leah A. Hill has extensively studied how school disciplinary policies are implemented. 

“I immediately wondered, ‘how many girls color their hair when they are 18? And how does one determine which colors are appropriate?’” Hill told Supermajority News of Hooper’s story. “School rules that are created to regulate behavior and dress codes should never be used for discriminatory purposes.”

While speaking to reporters, Hooper’s mother noted that Kienjanae was an honors student who had received several local scholarships and awards. “That to me also speaks to the discriminatory nature of the rule,” noted Hill. “Here, you have a student who has performed perfectly, but the focus on whether she can participate in graduation really goes back to her race.”

A similar case also recently occurred in South Carolina, where senior Dynasia Clark says she was not permitted to walk in Lamar High School’s graduation ceremony because she wore pants to the event instead of a dress. Clark told reporters that she expected to receive her diploma on stage because the school community was aware that she did not wear dresses and openly identified as a lesbian. 

Cases like Clark’s, noted Hill, highlight how the gendered expectations of many dress codes mean that LGBTQ and gender non-conforming students are singled out for rule violations. “It is pretty troubling how these local school districts can dole out discipline — and I hesitate to call it discipline — in a way that leads to discrimination, whether it is discrimination based on gender, sexuality or race,” said Hill. “You don’t have to look too hard to see the impact of these codes.”

While both students and their families have been speaking out about their experiences, Hill stresses that it should not be the responsibility of the teens affected by these codes to push for their rights. “Not all parents are in a position to do the kind of work that it takes to push back against these policies. These cases are difficult,” said Hill. “We have to have radical policy change and take a look at how zero tolerance disciplinary codes come about. The onus has to be on the school districts and the policies coming from the top.”