The Southern Poverty Law Center celebrated another victory last week as the Jefferson County Board of Education in Alabama voted to lift the ban on male earrings. The policy violated students’ Title IX rights because it discriminated against students on the basis of sex. The Board of Education repealed the policy for these reasons, which is a huge victory for students’ rights.
The whole process started on April 25 when the Southern Poverty Law Center sent a letter to the school board on behalf of Hunter Mahaffey, a student at Hueytown High School. Having just had his ears pierced, he was told that earrings were for females only and forced to remove them. In a recent article from the Southern Poverty Law Center, Mahaffey commented on the overturned policy.
He said, “I’m really happy to get my ears pierced again and keep them pierced this time. I felt discriminated against when the school made me remove my earrings just because I’m a guy. It’s a relief that the school board made the right decision by lifting the ban. Now students have more freedom and equality.”
This is not only an important victory for male students, but for other marginalized groups, too. Telling young men that they may not wear jewelry typically meant for female students reinforces our society’s rigid notions of gender and sexuality. By making it inappropriate for male students to wear earrings because it is something only girls should do, the school board was teaching students at a young age that doing anything outside of our rigid gender norms is inappropriate. This reinforcement of typical gender roles tells young men that it’s not okay to wear something a girl would typically wear because it would not be what we consider masculine. Forcing students into those gender norms is unfair and dangerous to everyone involved.
Sam Wolf, attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, said, “This is about more than an ability to wear an item of jewelry. By lifting this ban, the district has taken a step away from perpetuating harmful gender stereotypes that to be acceptable, males must look and act a specific way. Federal law protects students’ right to be free from unwarranted sex discrimination, including in dress codes.”
Most schools have dress codes for various reasons. Proponents of dress codes say that they minimize distractions in the classroom by not allowing students to wear colors or symbols associated with gangs and by not allowing students to show too much skin. Still others say that dress codes and uniforms can prevent students who come from low income families from feeling out of place among their peers who wear the latest, most expensive trends and, as such, can also reduce instances of bullying.
However, many dress codes are unfair, either because the policies themselves or the enforcement of those policies discriminate against students based on gender, sexuality, body type and a number of other factors. Schools and school boards spend a good deal of time deciding on dress codes that work for the majority of the school’s population, but every once in a while it takes a student to bring about change to an unfair policy. In this case, it is a major victory for students’ rights.
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