Buchanan High School senior Patrick Smart wore a dress for the first time last week.
His classmate, Emma Sledd, wore a collared men’s shirt to school.
“The reason we switched gender norms for the day was to make the statement that what we wear does not define us as students,” Sledd said. “Our district’s dress code should not favor or discriminate any gender. We believe everyone should be able to express themselves equally. A boy with long hair is no less of a hard worker than a girl with long hair.”
Sledd and Smart are among a handful of students across the district who are protesting Clovis Unified’s strict dress code, which the school board is refusing to change in the face of concerns that it’s unfair to all genders.
The district already is bracing itself for a legal fight with the American Civil Liberties Union, which has taken it to court over the dress code in the past.
In a surprise vote last week, trustees went against recommendations that would have allowed boys to wear long hair and earrings and removed language that says dresses and skirts are for girls. The decades-old policy directly violates state education code, according to the ACLU.
A student petition urging the board to approve a gender-neutral dress code had garnered nearly 2,500 signatures by Monday.
“When today’s youths don’t have a way to express who they are, they may just become another statistic in suicide rates,” Smart said. “CUSD can’t stop people from expressing themselves.”
Kristen Van Orden, a sophomore at Clovis North, is planning to reach out to Clovis Unified trustees about the matter herself, and said this is about more than fashion sense.
“Boys deserve to express their sexual orientation and gender identity through clothing, whether it’s the traditional boy look or a more feminine look,” she said. “Clothing shouldn’t determine a person’s education.”
No boys at Buchanan High were disciplined for wearing dresses in class. Sophia Brodish, a sophomore at Buchanan, wore a shirt to school that’s within the limits of the dress code policy, but wrote “dress code sucks” in rainbow colors across the back. She was written up, as she expected, but said it was worth it.
“We live in a city where the LGBTQA+ community is very minimal and unaccepted,” she said. “By allowing the dress code to become gender neutral, we are starting to bridge the gap of acceptance and unacceptance,” she said.
“High school is difficult as it is, and it’s hard to accept yourself during this period. … How could a district that is trying to give kids an education not allow us to be who we are? How could they not see that we are fighting for something we believe in? They are putting down our freedom of speech.”
While transgender rights have become a part of the dress-code controversy – with Clovis Unified Trustee Richard Lake saying “a woman’s a woman and a man’s a man, and there’s a difference” – district spokeswoman Kelly Avants said those students are protected despite the policy’s language.
“If a student has come to the administration, we’ll work with them to make sure that they have an environment on campus that allows them to express themselves with the gender in which they identify,” Avants said.