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Girls were forced to wear skirts at school to ‘preserve chivalry.’ So they sued — and won.

School uniforms. (iStock)

Every so often, Charter Day School in North Carolina would hold fire or tornado drills in which students had to kneel and protect their heads from flying debris or crawl on the ground to avoid imaginary smoke.

But girls had a much more immediate threat to fear: the boys.

“I don’t think the boys were supposed to be looking up our skirts, but they did,” former student Keely Burks said in a statement to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina. “I wished I was wearing pants or shorts during those drills.”

She was prohibited by the school’s uniform policy.

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This week, a federal judge in North Carolina ruled that the school’s policy toward girls’ clothing was unconstitutional, the culmination of a court fight that began in 2016 between three girls and the Leland, N.C., school’s administrators.

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Malcolm Howard said that the policy at the public charter school violated the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution because girls were treated differently than boys. Girls at the school, which serves kindergarten through eighth grade, could wear only skirts, jumpers or skorts (a skirt with shorts underneath) as part of their uniforms, with an exception for physical education classes.

Baker Mitchell, founder of the Roger Bacon Academy, which runs Charter Day School, told The Washington Post in a statement that “the Charter Day School Board is analyzing the opinion and will be meeting with counsel in the very near future to discuss their options moving forward.”

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Before the lawsuit, the policy had been controversial among some parents and students. Some students had circulated a petition that they say gathered over 100 signatures, only to have it confiscated, Burks wrote on the ACLU’s blog in 2016.

Parent Bonnie Peltier was attending an orientation for CDS in 2015 when she learned that the girls’ uniform rules required them to wear skirts, jumpers or skorts. She asked Mitchell about it.

Mitchell explained in an email that the dress code, along with other policies, were meant to “preserve chivalry and respect among young women and men.” He cited societal concerns such as “teen pregnancies” and “casual sex” for the need to create a learning environment that “embodied traditional values.”

Teen boys rated their female classmates based on looks. The girls fought back.

Frustrated with the policy, Peltier contacted the American Civil Liberties Union, which helped her daughter and two other plaintiffs file a federal lawsuit in March 2016.

“We’re having to tell our daughters, even though this is what they’re teaching you, this is not the way the world works anymore,” Peltier told HuffPost last year.

According to the decision, the skirt requirement forced girls to “pay constant attention to the positioning of their legs during class, distracting them from learning, and has led them to avoid certain activities altogether, such as climbing or playing sports during recess, all for fear of exposing their undergarments and being reprimanded by teachers or teased by boys.”

The school had defended its policy, saying it was based on “traditional values” and “is in place to instill discipline and keep order,” Howard summarized in his decision. “They argue that taking away the ‘visual cues’ of the skirts requirement would hinder respect between the two sexes.”

Howard did not find that argument persuasive. “Defendants have shown no connection between these stated goals and the requirement that girls wear skirts,” he wrote.

ACLU attorney Galen Sherwin said in a statement, “This policy reflected antiquated gender stereotypes, intentionally sending the message that girls are not equal to boys.

She told The Post on Saturday that two of the plaintiffs no longer attend Charter Day but that all the young women “are very happy that other girls will have the opportunity" to wear pants at school.

Erika Booth, a mother of one of the plaintiffs in the case, told The Post that her daughter had disliked the policy because “in her daily life, when she is not at school, she never wears a skirt or a dress, ever. It is just against what she would do.”

Now a seventh-grader at the school, Booth’s daughter said she is eager for a new uniform policy to take effect.

“You can really do more in pants than you can in skirts,” she said. “I’m just so happy.”

Fred Barbash contributed to this report.


The debate is more than a conversation about clothing. It’s a conversation about gender and social norms across generations. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

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