Clovis Board Votes to Keep School Dress Code, Despite Legal Threat

High school senior William Pleasant says he was told he couldn't register for classes until he cut his hair, which violates the Clovis Unified dress code. (Sasha Khokha/KQED)

Update, 2:00 p.m. Thursday:
Clovis Unified trustees have voted 4-3 against recommendations to change the school district's longstanding dress code. The proposed change would have allowed boys to wear long hair and earrings.

In a blog post responding to the vote, ACLU staff attorney Abre’ Conner writes that Clovis Unified has "defied reason and the law" in refusing to update the dress code:

Clovis Unified School District outdid itself once again. The district had the opportunity to change its painfully outdated dress code, but the district defied reason—and the law—this week.

In a 4-3 vote, the school board voted to keep its policies discriminatory on the basis of gender expression. With this vote, the school district continues to deny students an education through its unlawful dress code. Clovis Unified will keep suspending boys for wearing earrings or letting their hair cover their earlobes. This violates California law.

Original Post: William Pleasant is a senior at Buchanan High School in Clovis, a small city northeast of Fresno. He says he almost wasn’t allowed to enroll for his senior year.

"Because my hair was out of dress code,” says Pleasant. “They weren’t going to register me."

Pleasant’s curly hair reaches past his earlobes and his shirt collar. For boys, that’s against the current Clovis Unified dress code.  He says he got detention and on-campus suspension as his hair was growing out his junior year. Then he was told he couldn’t register for his senior year unless he cut his hair.

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“They have an image of how men should look, and since I wasn’t following that I was being denied my education because of the way I chose to present myself,” says Pleasant.

Pleasant wrote a letter to the Fresno Bee about the dress code. His family got in touch with the ACLU, which argued to Clovis Unified officials that the dress code violates state laws against gender discrimination because it has different standards for boys and girls.

ACLU attorneys also argued that racism was at play. Because Pleasant is African-American, they told district officials he shouldn’t be denied a “cultural exemption” in how he wears his hair. Clovis does make exceptions for some religious and cultural groups, like Sikhs.

School officials eventually agreed Pleasant could keep his long hair and enroll.

Wednesday night, the district will vote on whether to update the dress code for everyone, to set the same standards around hair and jewelry for both boys and girls.

According to the current Clovis dress code, "earrings are not appropriate or acceptable for males as school attire."

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“We have had a dress code in Clovis Unified since 1975 in respect to creating and setting a very high standard for students,” says district spokeswoman Kelly Avants. “It has been an integral part of the culture of our district, the culture of high expectations and accountability that we see translate to student success."

But Avants says the school board is considering a proposal that would eliminate the hair-length requirement but would still require neat grooming. “We feel that standard can very much be in place, as we see in our schools today without having that gender differentiation between male and female," she says.

The dress code is just the latest flashpoint for the conservative school district. Clovis Unified is well known for its high test scores, but it has also tangled with the ACLU because it taught abstinence-only sex education, and denied a Native American student’s request to wear an eagle feather in his graduation cap.

Christian Titman, a Native American former student at Clovis High School, sued for the right to wear an eagle feather to his graduation last summer.
Christian Titman, a Native American former student at Clovis High School, sued for the right to wear an eagle feather to his graduation last summer. (ACLU Northern California)

“We are happy that Clovis Unified School District is looking to bring their dress code up to date with the law,” says Abre’ Conner, staff attorney for the ACLU of Northern California’s Fresno office. "Gender expression is a protected category, and their proposed changes seem to reflect the new standards of the California education code. Without those changes, their dress code will be in direct violation of the law."

But some parents are livid about the proposed changes.

"To allow our boys to have long hair and earrings in the name of gender equality, you know, what else does that open us up to?” says parent Kent Lubratich. He graduated from Clovis Unified in 1983, and has sent his three kids to Clovis schools.

"Clovis is a way of life,” says Lubratich. “People know a Clovis Unified child. They see it. When you have a kid applying for a job, you can tell what school district they go to."

Lubratich says the dress code is part of what makes Clovis such an academically successful district.

"You dress for success, you get educated for success. Me being an employer, any of my employees show up in pajamas, long hair, ungroomed, earrings, that will distract from their duties,” says Lubratich.

William Pleasant, the long-haired high school senior we heard from earlier, argues that growing industries like tech don’t mind if their employees have a ponytail or earrings. They’d rather they come to the job with a diploma, he says.

While the dress code the board will consider Wednesday would eliminate language around boys' hair length and gender-specific references to dresses and skirts, it does still include provisions regarding hairstyles.

"That it’s neatly groomed, that it doesn’t provide a distraction, that it isn’t wildly or unnaturally shaped, that it isn’t allowing kids to be more focused on the purple hair mohawk than what the teachers want to say,” says district spokeswoman Avants.