Let the Girls Dance (and Dress!)? Title IX Implications for “Morality Codes” in Schools

By Jackie Gharapour Wernz

I know many of you may be wondering why this blog has been so quiet. Well, I took the summer off! And guess what, Summer just ended in Dallas this week, something that I was certainly not used to when living in Chicago. Now that it’s finally not 100+ degrees outside every day, my break is over and I am ready to tackle the fall.

My nine-year-old daughter started a new public school this year. I was very surprised when she came home from school a few days into the new academic year telling me that she had been “dress-coded” for her skirt being too short. Now, those of you who know me may not believe this, but this 5’4″ mama has a fourth grader who is already over 5 feet tall! She has long legs and a small waist, which makes buying skirts that meet the old “three-inches-above-the-knees” requirement nearly impossible. Also, she’s in fourth grade—is there really a risk that any fourth-grade boys are going to be so busy ogling her that they can’t focus on learning fractions and other elementary school topics? Shouldn’t she be told how big her brain is at school, not how distracting her body is to others?

This situation got me thinking about “morality codes” in schools. Whether you’re talking about dress codes, for which 90% of enforcement reportedly falls on girls, or other rules based on gender stereotypes about how girls should look or act, back to school is a perfect time to remind ourselves of Title IX’s limitations on these types of requirements. A recent story out of Louisiana provides a great backdrop for this discussion.

Can Even a Short K-12 Library Book Ban Lead to a Civil Rights Violation? OCR Says Yes

By Jackie Gharapour Wernz and Kendra Yoch

From School Board member resignations to administrator terminations, from Federal free speech lawsuits to schools pulling the Bible from library shelves, there is no shortage of stories about the challenges facing school districts that ban books based on allegedly explicit content. The U.S. Department of Education recently added to the fraught environment surrounding book bans in response to a complaint alleging that the removal of certain books led to violations of students’ rights under Title IX and Title VI. Specifically, several students spoke up at a school board meeting saying their school district removed books because of LGBTQIA content or authorship. Others claimed books were removed because they championed principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion or were written by authors or contained characters who are people of color. The students reported feeling targeted, marginalized, and unwelcome because of the book bans. Despite those reports, the school district did not address the concerns under its policies prohibiting harassment based on race, color, or national origin (Title VI policies) or sex, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity (Title IX policies).

Although OCR resolved the complaint before making a finding of whether a violation occurred, the type of resolution agreement used can only be considered when OCR’s investigation has identified concerns through its investigation. The agreement is therefore clear notice to schools that OCR expects them to treat allegations of harassment based on the removal of books from school libraries as they would any other allegation of misconduct based on a protected status. Unless and until a lawsuit—like the one filed by the Texas AG recently, challenging a similar OCR investigation in Texas—is successful, schools should brush up on their civil rights responsibilities to limit the risk of an OCR investigation in response to removals of library books. Let’s talk about this case a bit more and what those responsibilities are.