A Virginia school district is considering banning cross-dressing by students, out of what one board member called concerns for the safety of "several" male students who wear dresses and wigs to school.
The Suffolk Board of Education plans to take up the issue at a meeting Thursday night, amid criticism that such a ban would violate students' First Amendment rights. The proposal explicitly bans clothing "not in keeping with a student's gender," distracts others from the educational process or poses health concerns. Board members will not vote on the proposal, which would take effect next year if approved.
"So there's plenty of time for discussion," district spokeswoman Bethanne Bradshaw told FoxNews.com.
Bradshaw said the proposal stems from concerns raised by Board Vice Chairwoman Thelma Hinton, who cited reports during a recent board meeting about male students who wore feminine clothing last year and had to use faculty restrooms due to safety concerns.
Hinton, who did not immediately return requests for comment on Thursday, told MyFox43tv.com the problem was brought to her attention by teachers. She said she knows of several male students who wore makeup, wigs and dresses to class.
"My main concern is [the] safety of those individuals," Hinton told the station. "Freedom of expression is good, but there is a limitation. Anytime there is a threat upon a child, to me, that's where you draw the line of freedom of expression."
Bradshaw said district officials, to her knowledge, had not received any complaints regarding the potential change. But some students in the district and local civil liberties organizations believe the matter is a "clear First Amendment issue" that ultimately will not be instituted.
John Whitehead, an attorney and president of the Rutherford Institute, a Virginia-based civil liberties group, said the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that students can express themselves with clothing as long as it doesn't cause a "substantial" disruption in school. He cited previous cases in which white students were barred from wearing Confederate flag T-shirts in predominantly African-American schools as an example of a substantial disruption.
"But a kid wearing a dress or something, or a girl wearing a tuxedo, most kids today don't care," Whitehead told FoxNews.com. "So it wouldn't cause a substantial disruption. To me, it's a clear First Amendment issue. It's ridiculous."
Whitehead said board members will have to prove that wearing nongender-specific clothing will cause a significant disruption in or out of the classroom, particularly if it leads to some sort of violence. He said discussions he's had with teachers in the district revealed that the proposal is coming from "one or two teachers" in the district, rather than students themselves.
"The students don't care, it's one or two teachers," he said. "We have to teach them that they have these [First Amendment] rights or else they'll grow up and think they don't have them. Today, gender is a subjective thing."
Whitehead said he thinks the "overly vague" proposal will ultimately be slowed down due in part to "bad press" the district has received since the proposal was drafted.
In addition to clothing "not in keeping with a student's gender," the 13-point student dress regulation proposal also seeks to ban sexually suggestive attire, sagging pants, any article of clothing that advertises alcohol or an illegal substance, clothing with slogans or words across the buttocks, sleepwear and head covering unless worn for religious or medical reasons.
Suffolk Public Schools, located in Suffolk, Va., serves more than 14,000 students in 19 schools, including 12 elementary and three high schools.
Sean Artis, a senior at King's Fork High School, said he believes the proposal is wrong, saying "people express themselves" in different ways. Artis said a former classmate who was opened gay dressed in women's clothing every day to school -- and was never a distraction.
"I've talked with the guy and he's perfectly fine," Artis told MyFox43tv.com. "There is nothing wrong with him. It's just the way he feels and if he feels he can express himself that way, he should."
Messages seeking comment from Superintendent Deran Whitney and other school board members were not immediately returned early Thursday.
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