Gender and Schooling

Ending bullying and harassment, and promoting sexual diversity in schools.

Cross-dressing student forced to drop out of school

What are the limits for student expression in schools?


I was horrified to read the latest news story about a high school student who is being denied access to an education because he doesn't dress "manly" enough. 16 year old Jonathan Escobar transferred to a high school in Georgia's Cobb County from Miami, FL and lasted only three days before dropping out because they were requiring him to adhere to gender-specific dress codes.

Before he started attending the school, he apparently met with administrators to discuss his gender expression. According to sovo.com "Goodwin said Escobar met with school officials before he entered school the week of Sept. 30, and discussed what clothing he was comfortable in, and the school bent rules for him. Goodwin said the school allowed Escobar to use faculty bathrooms that no other students had access to, and allowed him to wear wigs, which usually violates school dress codes." So its sounds like they were off to a good start -- but then something changed.

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In the three days he attended North Cobb High School, he claims he was not overtly bullied, however he was aware of rumors that the football team was spreading about him. This is a form of gendered harassment, however it is one that schools tend to avoid as its covert nature makes it easy to ignore. There are legal precedents that protect students who defy traditional heterosexual gender norms in schools. A Kansas federal district court considered gender stereotyping, and the related anti-gay harassment of a student who did not identify as gay, actionable under Title IX (Theno v. Tonganoxie, 2005). The court wrote that "the plaintiff was harassed because he failed to satisfy his peers' stereotyped expectations for his gender because the primary objective of plaintiff's harassers appears to have been to disparage his perceived lack of masculinity"(p. 952). Therefore they concluded that the harassment of Dylan Theno was so, "severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively denied (him) an education in the Tonganoxie school district"(p. 966). The district settled with Dylan for a total of $440,000 (Trowbridge, 2005).

As far as I can tell, Jonathan does not identify as transgender, he just feels more comfortable in feminine clothing and accessories. However, there was another related case in Massachusetts, Doe v. Yunits (2000) that can help schools better prepare for the realities that transgender and gender nonconforming youth face in schools. In this case, "Pat Doe", a 15-year-old transgender 8th grader, won the right to attend school wearing clothing that expresses her female gender identity. Prior to the legal complaint, "Pat's" principal regularly had sent her home to change her attire and began requiring her to check with him to have her clothing approved on a daily basis. It was found that the treatment she received from her school principal violated sex discrimination protections provided by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and that the school could not place restrictions on her attire based on her sex assigned at birth. The Appeals Court supported the lower court's decision to issue an injunction requiring the school to permit Pat to attend, "in clothing and accessories that express her female gender identity" (Doe v. Yunits, 2000, p. 2).


I hope the school will soften its approach and recognize that clothing is a legitimate form of student expression and that other students don't have the right to exercise a "heckler's veto" (a term used to describe the disruption that is caused in response to another's expression). Just because the intolerance of other students may have led to some disruption doesn't mean that Jonathan's legitimate and peaceful expression should be suppressed. In schools, student expression can be limited for a few legally defined reasons including: if the expression substantially disrupts the learning environment, or if the expression is threatening or jeopardizes the safety of others. Bryan Warnick recently wrote in Educational Researcher (April 2009) that there are at least seven special characteristics the mediate students' rights at schools:


1. age of students
2. attendance requirements
3. multiple school constituencies
4. heightened safety considerations
5. the need for public accountability
6. the school-associated nature of much student speech
7. the need to promote educational goals (p. 201)


The special case of schools demands that teachers and administrators be extremely conscious of students' individual rights as well as the pedagogical and civic lessons that are being presented when such public decisions are made. Warnick asserts that in schools there should be an " ‘educational criterion for limiting speech rights': If and when speech rights are limited, they should be limited in an educational way, one that affirms the value of free speech while acknowledging its limitations in schools." (p. 211)

As for Jonathan: "I don't know what to do," he said. According to sovo.com, he would like to attend another school with a more accepting climate, but lacks transportation. It is my hope that the school officials will engage in a civic dialogue with Jonathan and his family and use this as an opportunity to educate themselves and the larger school community. Jonathan sounds like a strong young man with a clear sense of what is important to him. I wish him much luck as he tries to find a school that will embrace him for who he is and allow him to experience success.

Elizabeth Meyer, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California.

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