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School Keeps Fighting To Require Girls Wear Skirts Because They're "Fragile Vessels"

The Supreme Court denied an appeal case centering on Charter Day School, which claimed skirts were necessary to teach that girls were “fragile vessels” in need of “chivalry.”

For years now, parents and students alike have been emboldened to push back against school dress codes. Many have criticized these rules as disproportionately affecting girls and children of color, sending the message that their education matters less than that of their white and male peers. Others view these criticisms of dress codes as a symptom of a “decaying society.” But one institution that will not be joining the fray just yet? The Supreme Court. Recently, SCOTUS declined to hear Peltier v. Charter Day School, a case out of North Carolina regarding a school dress code that required girls to wear skirts based on the view that they are “fragile vessels.”

Charter Day School (CDS) in Leland, North Carolina is one of four Classical Charter Schools in the state founded by Baker Mitchell. Though it is not strictly speaking a public school, it received 95% of its funding from government sources and is universally accessible to area children. (This distinction would become crucial to the case.) According to court documents, when Bonnie Peltier enrolled her children — a daughter in kindergarten and an older son — in 2015, she thought it was unusual that girls were required to wear skirts, skorts, or jumpers, as such garments would discourage moving freely throughout the day, especially on the playground.

When Peltier objected to this dress code, Mitchell responded by saying, “The Trustees, parents, and other community supporters were determined to preserve chivalry and respect among young women and men in this school of choice. For example, young men were to hold the door open for the young ladies and to carry an umbrella, should it be needed. Ma’am and sir were to be the preferred forms of address. There was felt to be a need to restore, and then preserve, traditional regard for peers.” He later elaborated that the institution defined chivalry as a code of conduct that “regarded [a woman] as a fragile vessel that men are supposed to take care of and honor,” and that the skirt requirement was an attempt to encourage girls to be treated “courteously and more gently than boys.”

Represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Peltier and two other parents brought suit against CDS, alleging a violation of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protections Clause (no state can “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws”) and Title IX (which specifically prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex). CDS countered that, since they were not a public school, they were not a state actor, and therefore were not beholden to those laws.

CDS is unabashedly “traditional,” emphasizing “traditional values,” including a “traditional curriculum, traditional manners, and traditional respect.” According to court documents, “One Board member explained, CDS operates ‘more like schools were 50 years ago compared to now.’” The school’s pledge, which can be found on their website, reads in part:

I pledge to be truthful in all my works, guarding against the stains of falsehood from the fascination with experts, the temptation of vanity, the comfort of popular opinion and custom, the ease of equivocation and compromise, and from over-reliance on rational argument. ... I pledge to be obedient and loyal to those in authority, in my family, in my school, and in my community and country.

Prior to the case, Classical Charter Schools had been the subject of a ProPublica report that found the schools specifically funneled money to the founder’s private enterprises via no-bid contracts. “The schools buy or lease nearly everything from companies owned by Mitchell,” Marian Wang wrote in 2014. “Their desks. Their computers. The training they provide to teachers. Most of the land and buildings.” The Board of CDS, which at the time included Mitchell, voted to hire the Roger Bacon Academy, a for-profit company owned by Mitchell, to run day-to-day operations of the schools.

The case was initially heard in a district court, which ruled that CDS had indeed violated the Equal Protections Clause, though not Title IX. An appeal to the Fourth Circuit ruled that it had violated both.

“Of course, the skirts requirement is merely one component of CDS’ imposition of ‘traditional gender roles’ on its young students. According to CDS, its female students are ‘fragile’ and must acquiesce to having boys hold umbrellas over them when it rains,” wrote Judge Barbara Keenan in the majority opinion. “Considering this jaw-dropping assessment of girls’ capabilities, we may never know the full scope or all the consequences of CDS’ blatant, unapologetic discrimination against its female students. But the skirts requirement, harmless as it may seem to the defendants, requires only a pull of the thread to unravel the lifelong social consequences of gender discrimination. In 2022, there is no conceivable basis for allowing such obstacles to girls’ progress in our public schools.”

Moreover, the Fourth Circuit ruled that because North Carolina had effectively made CDS as accessible as a public school, it should be considered a state actor under the law. Though Charter Day School attempted to escalate it to the highest court in the land, the justices decided not to hear the case, meaning the last ruling stands and girls will not be required to wear skirts.

The Supreme Court declined to hear Peltier v. Charter Day School, a case out of North Carolina regarding a school dress code that required girls to wear skirts based on the view that they are “fragile vessels.” Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images News/Getty Images

“Today’s announcement is a victory for the thousands of students who attend public charter schools in North Carolina and for the 3.6 million students like them nationwide,” Ria Tabacco Mar, Director of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project said in a statement. “Girls at public charter schools have the same constitutional rights as their peers at other public schools — including the freedom to wear pants. We will continue to fight for all girls to learn in safe and equal schools.”

But in her majority opinion, Keenan recognizes that the debate about the specific rights of charter schools is far from over.

“Charter schools are proving quite popular, so much so that they are becoming difficult to restrict through legislative means,” she wrote in her conclusion. “So the effort seems to be to control them through regulation and litigation, as this case makes plainly manifest. No doubt the fight against the CDS dress code has only begun.”