Ordinarily, schools can enact dress and grooming codes that maintain order in the school, enable the school to effectively educate the students, and protect the students’ health and safety. The rights of school districts are sometimes restricted by freedom of speech and freedom of expression rights, but schools have broad discretion in determining what they consider the appropriate appearance of students in the school setting.
Q: My child attends a public school. How can they impose a dress code?
A: Although dress codes are normally associated with private schools, more and more public schools are imposing dress codes. Schools are charged with providing an appropriate educational environment for students. This sometimes means that schools must enforce regulations that minimize distractions, which may come from inappropriately suggestive clothing (short skirts or tight clothing) or clothing that reflects a gang affiliation, poses a safety risk (such as very bulky clothing), or may highlight differences in financial resources among students. Any clothing that may distract students from the school’s educational mission may be restricted.
Q: Don’t kids have freedom of speech and expression?
A: Kids do have some freedom of speech and freedom of expression, but it is limited in a school environment. For example, students generally have the right to speak freely about a subject, unless the speech is derogatory, profane, distracting, or meant to disrupt the school or provoke violence. Generally, school officials may restrict any speech or expression they believe disrupts the educational environment.
Q: What if my son wears a t-shirt with a peace symbol or a flag on it?
A: If school officials thinks a shirt may cause a fight or any other problem that may distract students, they have the right to insist that your son must turn his t-shirt inside-out, cover it with another garment, or change the shirt.
Q: My daughter belongs to a school-approved anti-drug group, but when she went to school wearing a t-shirt with an anti-drug message and a mild swear word, she was told to turn it inside-out. Why?
A: Schools can prohibit students from wearing clothing that contains derogatory messages. Even if the general message is a “positive” one, the student may be prohibited from wearing clothing that displays offensive language or images.
Q: What about trendy clothing such as baggy pants or extra-large shirts?
A: Trendy clothing also can be restricted if school officials believe it will distract other students or there is a safety reason for prohibiting the clothing. For instance, oversized clothing is often prohibited to reduce the chance that a student may hide a weapon.
Q: What about earrings, body piercings, tattoos, or other types of personal expression, such as colored hair or hair style?
A: Earrings, tattoos, and other types of personal expression also may be regulated under a school’s grooming codes. Schools have broad discretion to determine what types of personal expression in appearance may be disruptive to the educational environment or unsafe. For example, a physical education teacher may ban a student from wearing large, heavy earrings to prevent injury. Hair color considered to be distracting also may be prohibited.
Q: Is there anything I can do if I think the school has improperly violated my right to free speech or expression?
A: The first thing to do is to get the facts. Find out what the school’s policy is, and talk to one of the school’s administrators about what happened and how the policy was applied. Most schools have an internal appeals process for disciplinary actions that you might want to consider if you feel your child was treated inappropriately. If you are not satisfied with the school’s response and feel strongly enough about the situation, an attorney can advise you about what next steps you may wish to take, if any. If you do decide to get legal counsel, you would be wise to contact an attorney who specializes in school law or in First Amendment law.
This “Law You Can Use” column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association (OSBA). It was prepared by attorney Karin Mika of Cleveland-Marshall College of Law.