Public schools in Ohio have a substantial amount of discretion in implementing dress codes in order to maintain a safe learning environment for students. However, this discretion is not unlimited. Courts may consider dress code policies overbroad if the restrictions imposed on students are not necessary to prevent a substantial disruption or not related to the promotion of health and safety.
When implementing dress code policies, public boards of education must also consider students’ rights to free speech under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The United States Supreme Court held in 1969 that student speech can be regulated if a school proves it “materially and substantially interfere[s]” in school operations.
Q: Can a public school require students to cut their hair?
A: In most cases, yes. So long as the school’s policy governing length of hair is necessary for the government of schools and related to some educational purpose, the policy will usually be upheld by the courts. On the federal level, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals (covering Ohio) has held that hair length restrictions do not typically infringe on student constitutional rights under the First Amendment (regarding freedom of speech and expression). However, some Ohio courts, including the Ohio Supreme Court, have overturned hair length restrictions that were considered arbitrary or unreasonable.
Q: Can a public school restrict the clothing that students wear?
A: Yes. Schools are given great latitude in implementing policies governing student clothing. Schools may implement dress codes in order to limit disruptions on campus. Courts have upheld dress codes prohibiting vulgar writing, earrings, body piercings, sagging pants, torn clothing, bare midriffs and other sexually suggestive clothing. Policies that attempt to limit students from wearing gang-related or violence-based clothing are usually upheld where the schools can show the potential for disruption is real.
Q: Are there limits on what clothing public schools can ban?
A: Yes. As indicated above, schools must be able to show that the risk of disruption is real in order to enforce a dress code prohibition. Students also have freedom of expression and freedom of religion rights under the First Amendment, although schools may weigh these rights against the potential for disruption in school. By way of example, in a 2007 case, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a ban on wearing the confederate flag was appropriate where the school had demonstrated that racial tensions existed in the school.
Alternatively, in 2013, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Pennsylvania held in favor of students who challenged a school district’s policy banning “I heart boobies” bracelets that the students wore in support of breast cancer awareness. The court held that the school district did not prove that the bracelets were disruptive.
Q: Can a public school require student uniforms?
A: Yes. Ohio has adopted a statute indicating that schools may require a school uniform to be worn by the students attending one or more district schools, so long as the policy promotes a safe and healthy school setting and enhances the educational environment. The policy must be included in the school’s general code of conduct or discipline policy, be posted in a central location and be made available upon request.
Q: Are there steps that a public school must take to adopt a school uniform?
A: Yes. The board of education must provide six months notice in advance of requiring uniforms and afford “ample opportunity” for principal, staff, and parents to offer suggestions and comments on the proposed uniforms. The board of education must also include a procedure to assist parents of economically disadvantaged students to obtain uniforms, which may include using school district funds or funds from other sources to provide this assistance.
Q: Can students be disciplined for violations of grooming, dress code or uniform violations?
A: Yes, so long as the school has adopted a policy that is sufficiently clear on the issue of grooming (e.g. hair length), prohibited clothing or uniforms. Students must always be placed “on notice” in regards to the policies in which they are disciplined.