KBS Reference Desk: School Uniforms

Q: Our district is considering adopting a school uniform policy, but want to start with only our elementary campuses. Can we require uniforms on some campuses but not all?

A: Yes. State law allows a board of trustees to adopt a uniform or dress code policy on any one or more of its District campuses. Note, however, that the board must first determine that the uniforms would improve the learning environment on those campuses selected for uniforms.

Texas Education Code §11.162 provides that a board of trustees may adopt rules requiring students at a school in the district to wear school uniforms if the board determines that such rules would improve the learning environment at that school. While there is legal authority for adopting a uniform policy, such rules can be difficult to apply equitably. The following are several commonly asked questions that each district and board should understand when considering whether a school uniform policy is appropriate for their district:

1. What is a “school uniform?” – The Education Code does not define this term. The Commissioner of Education, however, has provided guidance when, in a particular case, he was called to distinguish school uniforms from dress codes, finding that the former (true uniforms) are “ensembles by which an observer could conclude that the student belonged to a particular group or attended a particular school – based solely on his/her dress.” Even with this definition, the term is still broad and may need further regulations to address the specific uniform requirements and any accessory prohibitions to be observed.

2. What if a student can’t afford the uniforms? – The Education Code specifically requires that the board designate a specific source fund for providing uniforms to economically disadvantaged students. (TEC 11.162(b)). Specific regulations must be put in place to determine eligibility for the uniform stipend, and teachers/administrators should take care to publicize the funding and identify students in need without causing unnecessary embarrassment.

3. What if a parent refuses? – The law explicitly allows a parent to request an exemption from a uniform policy in writing, or request that their child be transferred to a different school in the district that does not have a uniform policy. Such request must specifically site a “bona fide religious or philosophical objection” to the policy. The board has the ultimate discretion whether or not to grant the exemption request. Any decision of the board is final and may not be appealed.

4. What about gender-specific clothing? – A District wanting to impose a gender-specific uniform (e.g., girls must wear skirts/dresses) must be aware of certain legal implications that could arise from a student complaint. So far, Texas courts have generally allowed school districts to adopt dress codes and uniforms which apply differently on a gender basis. However, courts in other jurisdictions applying federal law have found that disciplining a student for dressing as their preferred gender constituted an improper restriction on student expression; other courts have found it gender discrimination. One way to avoid these claims is by allowing gender-neutral options for both boys and girls (i.e., girls may wear skirts, dresses, or pants).