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A Mandated Dress Code for Parents? Legal Issues School Leaders Should Know

K-12 Education Publications

No ripped jeans. No sagging pants. No satin caps or bonnets. These are a few of the new dress code rules for parents set forth by a principal at a Texas High School. Although school dress codes for students are commonplace, the new focus on parental appearance has garnered national attention. One common criticism of such policies is that they impact members of some racial, sexual, or socioeconomic groups more than others. They also have been criticized for discouraging parents from being involved in their children’s educations. What legal and other concerns should administrators consider before implementing dress code policies for parents?

The Texas case involved a warning from a Houston principal that parents failing to meet certain dress requirements would be prohibited from entering the premises. The prohibited clothing items and styles ranged from hair rollers to sagging pants and from flannel pajamas to men’s undershirts. The stated rationale for the rule was to prepare students and “let them know daily, the appropriate attire they are supposed to wear when entering a building, going somewhere, applying for a job or visiting someone outside of the home setting . . . .” This is not the first time the issue of parent dress codes has found the media spotlight this year; a Tennessee lawmaker proposed a bill earlier this year that would require schools to have parental dress codes.

Although there is little guidance from courts about how parental dress codes would be scrutinized, recent court cases involving student and employee dress codes shed some light on the issue. In March, a federal district judge in North Carolina ruled that a charter school’s dress code requiring girls to wear skirts violated the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. As we reported in a recent Franczek alert, recent New York City Commission on Human Rights guidelines is an important reminder that workplace grooming and appearance policies that limit “natural” hairstyles such as “cornrows” and “Afros” can be subject to challenges of racial discrimination. 

Based on the available guidance, we suggest that school leaders considering parental dress codes consider the following issues:

  • As an important initial step, consider whether there are facts or circumstances that justify implementing such a policy. Unless such a policy is truly needed, avoiding the legal risk may be the most prudent step.
  • Schools generally have more authority to limit the dress of individuals present on their property because of the presence of young, impressionable students. That greater leeway only applies to dress that would be inappropriate for the environment, however, such as revealing clothing or clothing that includes inappropriate messages or images.
  • Consider any disparate impact a parental dress code might have on groups based on race, sex, socio-economic status, and other factors. A prohibition on “sagging pants” or other types of dress that are mostly associated with a particular minority group might, like a requirement that women where traditionally female clothing, be subject to challenge. Although prohibitions that negatively impact individuals of a lower socioeconomic status may not be subject to a legal challenge, considering such an impact can prevent excluding parents who might otherwise wish to be involved with their students’ educations simply because they cannot afford “nice enough” clothing.
  • Avoid the use of subjective words such as professionalunprofessionalappropriateinappropriate, and casual. Such words can have different meanings to different people, and so can be applied subjectively and inconsistently by administrators. Focus instead on clear, concrete descriptions of clothing that is prohibited. For example, instead of prohibiting “inappropriate” clothing, prohibit clothing that fails to adequately cover private areas such as genitals, buttocks, and nipples.

As always, we recommend that any potentially controversial policies such as parental dress codes be reviewed by legal counsel before publication. Schools may also wish to consider seeking feedback from their communities, such as through listening and information gathering sessions with parents, employees, students, and other members of the community. Such efforts can reduce community backlash to such policies once implemented.