The High Court of Justice on Tuesday denied a petition filed by a 14-year-old girl from the Tel Aviv suburb of Rishon Letzion challenging a provision in her school’s dress code relating to the length of students’ pants. The provision has been enforced mainly against the school’s female students.
The student, Alma Alon, had sought a ruling by the court that the Education Ministry director general’s directives permitting schools to establish dress codes were issued without authority. In denying the petition, Justice Ofer Grosskopf noted that the essence of the legal issue that Alon sought to raise wasn’t necessarily the school’s authority to establish a dress code, but rather the discriminatory enforcement of the code against female students. The ministry directives require schools to develop their own dress code in consultation with parents and students.
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The petition was filed five months ago on behalf of Alma Alon, who was then in 8th grade, by her father, Yaron Alon, who is a lawyer. It sought a ruling barring schools from restricting the length of students’ clothing as long as the clothes do not reveal intimate parts of their bodies.
The decision to deny the petition was supported by all three justices on the court panel – Grosskopf, Isaac Amit and Noam Sohlberg. For his part, Sohlberg expressed the view that the court had given the student a platform beyond what her case merited, but the other two justices were unwilling to minimize the importance of school dress codes and their impact on gender equality, an issue that makes the news every year when the weather gets hot.
Alma Alon said that her school, along with others, barred students from wearing shorts above the knee, and although the rule applied to both boys and girls, it was enforced primarily against the girls. Based on incidents at other schools as well, the petition claimed that the approach to the issue was usually humiliating and embarrassing, treating students as objects in addition to raising sexual innuendos.
According to Grosskopf, there was no justification for intervening in a policiy that each school sets on its own and that involves community and educational considerations. He added, however, that the Student’s Rights Law bars the enforcement of a dress code in a way that involves gender discrimination. That comment may pave the way for future litigation on the issue.
“The petition raises an issue that shouldn’t be taken lightly,” Justice Amit wrote. While the decision to come to school in shorts no higher than the knee line is “ostensibly gender-neutral, as a practical matter, there appears to be substance to the argument that, on the ground, the preoccupation with the length of one’s shorts is directed mainly at the female students and creates embarrassment for all involved.”
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In his conclusion, Amit recommended a shift from rules to principles – setting a standard for school dress that requires that it be “fitting and appropriate without getting down to centimeters and measurements of various kinds, which can be embarrassing or sometimes even humiliating or, heaven forbid, objectifying.”
Sohlberg said that rather than being addressed through a litigation process, the issue should be dealt with through an educational process. While the subject of the petition was important, “it is rooted in the field of education.”
“I filed the petition because the lack of equality bothered me,” Alma Alon said. “I have a friend who goes to school in Tel Aviv, and she has no restrictions on pant length. There’s no difference between us and there’s no difference between the schools. The lack of equality also exists in the different attitude towards the boys and girls. The girls are reprimanded and the boys are forgiven. The girls simply solve the problem by coming in long pants, but that’s not fair.”
The topic of students dress is dealt with in a directive from the Education Ministry’s director general on the subject of “optimal educational climate and how educational institutions deal with violence and risks.”
Alma’s father, Yaron Alon, questioned why the issue of a dress code would be dealt with in the context of violence and risk. “If the educational system has a problem with violence or harassment of students due to their dress, you need to deal with the people committing the harassment and not impose restrictions on an entire population of female students,” he said.