Media Contact

Kristi Gross, ACLU of Texas, [email protected]

February 1, 2024

HOUSTON — The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas published today a report that reveals more than half of Texas public K-12 school districts still have discriminatory dress codes and grooming policies. Many of these policies unequally target students based on gender, race, LGBTQIA+ identity, religion, disability, and socioeconomic backgrounds.

The report titled “Dressed To Express: How Dress Codes Discriminate Against Texas Students and Must Be Changed” is a comprehensive review of the 2022-2023 dress and grooming codes of 1,178 of Texas’ 1,207 K-12 public school districts. Our analysis found that hundreds of these codes still contain discriminatory language.

Some of the report’s key findings include:

  • More than 80% of surveyed districts use vague and subjective hair standards, which are often used to disproportionately punish Black students. The Texas Legislature recently enacted the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair Act (CROWN Act), which prohibits race-based hair discrimination.
  • 53% of surveyed districts force students to follow dress codes rooted in outdated gender norms and stereotypes, including boys-only hair length policies and rules applying only to girls.
  • More than 80% of surveyed districts prohibit head coverings, many without mentioning religious and cultural exemptions, which are required by Texas and federal law. For example, districts prohibit students from wearing religious headgear, like hijabs, yarmulkes, or turbans. 
  • Almost 80% of surveyed districts have rules prohibiting worn, frayed, or mis-sized clothing, which disproportionately affect low-income students who may not have access to new or fitted clothing.
  • Other dress codes discipline students for arbitrary rules about skirts being too short, shoulder straps violating the “three finger rule,” and clothes being immodest.

“Our report reveals that hundreds of Texas school districts use discriminatory and harmful dress codes, which threaten students’ academic outcomes and violate their rights to self-expression and equal treatment,” said Chloe Kempf (she/her), attorney with the ACLU of Texas. “No student should lose class time, miss out on extracurriculars, or be made to feel shame because of how they dress or wear their hair. We’re calling for Texas school districts to update their dress and grooming codes in accordance with state and federal law and adopt fair and inclusive policies that allow all students – no matter their race, gender, or background – to learn and thrive.”

A video statement by Chloe Kempf can be accessed here

Texas school districts frequently make national headlines for dress code discrimination, such as Barbers Hill ISD continuing to suspend Black students for wearing locs or Spring Branch ISD punishing a Black girl on the track team for training in a sports bra. Boys and nonbinary students throughout Texas school districts have been suspended for having long hair or painting their nails. Dress codes use arbitrary terms like “modesty”or “well-groomed” to discipline students for their clothing or facial hair. 

“Dressed to Express” reveals that many school district policies still contain language explicitly targeting students based on race, while a sample of school districts disproportionately enforce their dress codes against students who are Black.

“Students deserve a positive learning environment that uplifts them, not one that marginalizes them,” said Trevor Wilkinson (he/him), a former Clyde Consolidated Independent School District student who was suspended for decorating his nails. “My suspension during my senior year made me painfully aware of the systemic biases entrenched within school district policies and highlighted the necessity for more inclusive and equitable dress codes. I hope school districts recognize the importance of creating dress codes that embrace and respect individual expression. By fostering gender-neutral dress code policies that celebrate personal identity, school districts can create a more supportive environment that allows students to thrive.”

Some of these policies harshly discipline students in ways that contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline and tend to harm students of color and LGBTQIA+ students the most. Discriminatory policies can violate students’ rights under the First Amendment, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, Title VI, Title IX, the CROWN Act, or the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act (TRFRA). 

In 2020, the Legal Defense Fund sued Barbers Hill ISD after the district suspended a Black student for his hairstyle despite a federal court ruling finding that the district’s hair-length rules are likely unconstitutional. Following that ruling, the ACLU of Texas sent a letter to 477 school districts with similar boys-only hair-length policies, and this report shows that over half of those districts have now changed those discriminatory rules.

While the report reveals that discriminatory dress codes harm Texas students, they also violate the rights of parents, who want their children to be able to express their identities at school free from stereotypes written into district dress codes. 

“My child was suspended, missed valuable class time, and was isolated from friends just because they have long hair,” said Danielle Miller (she/her), parent of a non-binary student in Magnolia ISD who successfully sued the district for gender discrimination. “Our family should never have had to sue our school district to allow my child to be who they are. Punishing students because of their race, gender, or religion is unacceptable. Discrimination and archaic dress codes have no place in Texas schools.”

The report will be sent to every school district in the state. It is designed to help students, families, educators, and policymakers identify the harms caused by discriminatory dress code policies and offer alternative, more inclusive solutions.

The report concludes with a list of recommendations for schools, such as removing discriminatory dress code language, having fair and non-disruptive enforcement, and providing clear and specific guidelines.

How to search for discriminatory language in your school district’s dress code:

Search for a school district’s 2023-24 dress and grooming code. The policies might be located inside the larger, more general student code of conduct or student-parent handbook (e.g. "[XYZ] ISD student handbook").

Once you have the dress code for a particular school district, search for keywords that might indicate discriminatory language along the lines of gender, race, religion, income, and more.

Potential keywords:

  • Gender = "hair length", "earrings", "nail polish", "makeup", "dress", "skirt", "sleeveless", "strap(s)", "cleavage", "modesty"
  • Race = "braids", "cornrows", "locs", "dreadlocks", "afro", "bushy", "curl(y)", "puffs", "fade", "twists", "bantu knots", "neat", "clean", "groomed", "caps", "hoods", "do-rags", "bandanas"
  • Religion = "hats", "scarves", "hair coverings", "head coverings", "toboggans", "kerchiefs", "wraps", "turbans", "nets", "rosaries", "satanic", "witchcraft"
  • Income = "torn", "frayed", "oversized", "baggy", "hole", "sagging"

The report also notes the prevalence of dress codes with rules that require the measurement, inspection, or movement of minors'/students’ bodies. Potential keywords to check for the presence of those dress code policies include: "shorter than X inches", "three finger rule", "below the fingertips", "show any skin", "hands are raised", and "bending over."

The report has been endorsed by the following signatories:

ACLU Women's Rights Project, Children's Defense Fund—Texas, Equality Texas, First Christian Church Katy TX, Human Rights Campaign, Intercultural Development Research Association, Juvenile Children's Advocacy Project, Katy Pride, Lambda Legal, NAACP Legal Defense Fund, National Women's Law Center, Native American Rights Fund, Students Engaged in Advancing Texas, Texas Appleseed, Texas Civil Rights Project, Texas Freedom Network, The Mahogany Project, Transgender Education Network of Texas, and Young Leaders, Strong City. 

Access the full report:

If you believe your school district’s dress code is discriminatory, learn how to take action at the ACLU of Texas’ Students’ Rights Hub