The Sharyland ISD board approved a uniform dress code for students of all genders at the July school board meeting. Changes to the Student Code of Conduct come into effect for the 2022-2023 school year.
The gender-neutral dress code affects student clothing, accessories, and hair. For example, Sharyland ISD previously limited hair length for boys but not for girls. However, this will no longer be a rule with the new dress code. The rules for tucked shirts also differed between boys and girls in previous years, but now there will be a uniform rule for all students. The updated policy with all changes is not yet available on the District’s website.
“[The changes are] intended to be consistent with today’s legal landscape and are consistent with both [the Texas Association of School Boards] and recommendations from the SISD legal counsel,” said Assistant Superintendent of Student Support Services Pamela Montalvo. “In addition, our campus administrators have reviewed the changes and believe the updated policies prevent unnecessary distractions and disruptions to the learning environment.”
There are still rules regarding grooming and what the district calls extravagant styles. Students are still not allowed to have mohawks, spikes, and unnatural hair colors such as blue or purple.
“It became federal law, so, I mean, it was happening,” administrator Alejandro Rodriguez said. “And I’m glad the administration and everybody kind of got together and made the change because I think the sooner the better – before we see litigation going on.”
In November 2021, Sharyland commenced litigation with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas for to suspend a 5 year old boy to have long hair. The ACLU filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights on behalf of the student, citing religious and gender discrimination – a violation of Title IX.
Another parent from Sharyland spoke to Progress Times in December 2021, saying her son had a similar problem getting long hair, but she ended up withdrawal her neighborhood child.
In May, a Sharyland ISD employee and relative urged the school board to change its dress code because it discriminates against the natural hair of black students.
But the SISD incidents are only part of a recent series of events involving Texas school districts and their dress codes.
In October 2021, the ACLU sued Houston-area Magnolia ISD over a gender-based policy on behalf of six boys and a non-binary student who were disciplined for having long hair and removed from class. A federal judge then ordered that the students could return to school without consequences, and Magnolia ISD eventually reversed its clothing policy.
In 2020, two black Barbers Hill ISD students filed lawsuits against the school district for enforcing a dress code controlling hair length for male students. The Houston-area district told students they had to cut their locs to attend graduation. The U.S. District Court Later reversed the grooming policy, deeming the dress code discriminatory.
Also in 2020, Clyde CISD near Abilene suspended a student for wearing fingernail polish. The incident received national attention, even sparking a petition to allow boys to wear nail polish. The petition collected more than 400,000 signatures. The ACLU also backed the student, citing a Title IX violation. Clyde CISD School Board Later adopted a gender-neutral dress code.
In a month of March interview with Texas Lone Star magazine, TASB Legal Services Senior Counsel Jasman Wightman said she believes these types of cases will only move forward. The Texas Association of School Boards has released an update tips on student dress and appearance last month, recommending gender-neutral standards for consistency and fairness.
“It’s an ever-evolving area of law from our perspective. We look at what the TASB recommends and we make our own recommendations,” said Sharyland ISD attorney Ivan Perez. “…you see it most often with the length of the hair. This was very recently challenged in federal and Texas courts. And our courts have suggested that treating hair length differently between the sexes runs counter to discrimination on the basis of sex and sex.
ACLU of Texas attorney Brian Klosterboer shared Wightman’s sentiment in a November 2021 interview with Progress Times.
“This same type of thing is going to keep happening unless they permanently change their policy to remove gender stereotypes and no longer discriminate against students in this way,” Klosterboer said. “From the school district’s perspective, it would be a huge waste of taxpayer money and resources to fight vigorously just to hang on to an outdated and discriminatory policy.”
Neighboring CISD Mission School District has adopted a temporary gender neutral dress code in March. The idea was to pilot the new policy until the end of the school year. Then the district would decide whether or not to make it permanent for the 2022-2023 school year. Since the policy updates, community members have expressed worry on the changes. But the Mission CISD board of directors did not meet to discuss the student code of conduct for the upcoming school year.
Sharyland ISD board members approved the new dress code policy in a 4-0 vote, with director Ricky Longoria abstaining. Dr. Noe Oliveira was absent and Jose “Pepe” Garcia arrived late, unable to vote.
In the past, Longoria has insisted on following the traditional dress code of Sharyland. At the July board meeting, he questioned whether the new changes reflected the dress code for employees, saying employees should set an example for students and prepare them for the job market. Superintendent Dr Maria Vidaurri said the administration should review the employee handbook and report back to the board.
“I’ve always said the things we do differently are the things that make us great,” Longoria said during last year’s board discussion about the dress code. “And every time I see us stray a little bit from our core value, our structure, or our practice, I get really hesitant.”
Meagan Sullivan, the SISD worker and parent who asked the board to update the dress code because it didn’t include black students, said she was happy when she learned of the policy change .
“I think they made the right call,” Sullivan said. “I’m very excited for Sharyland to take a step forward.”