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Sharyland moves to gender-neutral student dress code

The Sharyland ISD board of trustees approved a singular dress code for students of all genders at the July school board meeting. The Student Code of Conduct changes are effective for the 2022-2023 school year. 

The gender-neutral dress code affects student clothing, accessories and hair requirements. For example, Sharyland ISD previously restricted the hair length for boys but not for girls. However, that will no longer be a rule with the new dress code. Rules for tucked-in shirts also differed between boys and girls in prior years, but now there will be one uniform rule for all students. The updated policy with all the changes is not yet available on the district website. 

“[The changes are] meant to be compliant with today’s legal landscape and are consistent with both [the Texas Association of School Boards] and SISD legal council recommendations,” Assistant Superintendent for Student Support Services Pamela Montalvo said. “Furthermore, our campus administrators have reviewed the changes and believe that the updated policies circumvent the distractions and unnecessary disruptions in the learning environment.” 

There are still rules regarding grooming and what the district refers to as outlandish styles. Students are still not allowed to have mohawks, spikes and unnatural hair colors such as blue or purple. 

“It has become federal law so, I mean, this was coming,” trustee Alejandro Rodriguez said. “And I’m glad that the administration and everybody kind of got together and made the change because I think the sooner, the better — before we see litigation at hand.” 

In November 2021, Sharyland entered a legal dispute with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas for suspending a 5-year-old boy for having long hair. The ACLU filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights on behalf of the student, citing religious and gender discrimination — a violation of Title IX. 

A different Sharyland parent spoke to Progress Times in December 2021, stating her son went through a similar issue for having long hair, but she ended up withdrawing her child from the district. 

In May, a Sharyland ISD employee and parent urged the school board to change their dress code because it discriminates against Black students’ natural hair. 

But the SISD incidents are only part of a recent string of events involving Texas school districts and their dress codes.

In October 2021, the ACLU sued Houston-area Magnolia ISD for a gender-based policy on behalf of six boys and a nonbinary student who were disciplined for having long hair and removed from class. A federal judge later ordered the students could return to school without consequences, and Magnolia ISD eventually reversed its dress code policy. 

In 2020, two Black students from Barbers Hill ISD filed lawsuits against the school district for enforcing a dress code policing the hair length of male students. The Houston-area district told the students they had to cut their locs to participate in graduation. The U.S. District Court later overturned the grooming policy, deeming the dress code discriminatory. 

Also in 2020, Clyde CISD near Abilene suspended a male student for wearing fingernail polish. The incident received national attention, even sparking a petition in favor of allowing boys to wear nail polish. The petition received more than 400,000 signatures. The ACLU also backed the student, citing a violation of Title IX. Clyde CISD’s school board later adopted a gender-neutral dress code.   

In a March interview with Texas Lone Star magazine, TASB Legal Services Senior Attorney Jasman Wightman said she believes these types of cases will only continue progressing. The Texas Association of School Boards released updated guidance on student dress and appearance last month, recommending gender-neutral standards for consistency and equity. 

“It’s a constantly changing area of law from our perspective. We look at what TASB recommends and we make our own recommendations,” Sharyland ISD Attorney Ivan Perez said. “…we see it most often with hair length. That’s been very recently litigated in the federal courts and Texas. And our courts have suggested that treating hair length differently between the genders is running afoul of gender and sexual discrimination.”

ACLU of Texas Attorney Brian Klosterboer shared the same sentiment as Wightman 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 dollars and resources to vigorously fight just to cling on to an outdated an discriminatory policy.” 

Nearby school district Mission CISD 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 concern about the changes. But the Mission CISD board of trustees has not met to discuss the Student Code of Conduct for the upcoming school year.  

The Sharyland ISD board members approved the new dress code policy in a 4-0 vote, with trustee Ricky Longoria abstaining. Dr. Noe Oliveira was absent, and Jose “Pepe” Garcia arrived late, unable to vote. 

In the past, Longoria has been vocal about keeping Sharyland’s traditional dress code. At the July board meeting, he expressed concern over whether the new changes mirrored the employee dress code, saying the employees should set an example for the students and prepare them for the workforce. Superintendent Dr. Maria Vidaurri said administration would need to review the employee handbook and report back to the board. 

“I’ve always said the things that we do different are the things that make us great,” Longoria said at last year’s board discussion regarding dress code. “And anytime I see us move a little bit from our core value or structure or practice, I get real hesitant.”

Meagan Sullivan, the SISD employee and parent that asked the board to update the dress code because it was not inclusive of Black students, said she was happy when she got word of the policy change.

“I think they made the right decision,” Sullivan said. “I’m very excited about Sharyland making a move towards progress.”

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